My Favorite Racing Movies

There is a wide variety of opinions when it comes to your favorite racing movies, mainly because we all have different standards. Racing movies can be viewed with a critical eye for realism and historical accuracy or they can be viewed on an emotional level, with less regard to detail. As for biographies, people who have seen the subject matter compete might have a tendency to be more critical when it comes to accuracy, while younger viewers who did not might focus just on what they see on the screen, how it is presented, and how it makes them feel.

My favorite movie growing up was The Jolson Story, which I'm sure I have seen over 100 times. To me, Larry Parks was Al Jolson and the story portrayed on the screen was his life, just the way it happened. Then I read Jolson's biography years later and realized that Larry Parks was nothing like Jolson and the story on the screen was totally fabricated. Now when I watch the Jolson Story, you know what? I couldn't care. What was on the screen was what was ingrained in me and superseded reality. I still look at Parks as Al Jolson more than Jolson himself.   

So there is no right and wrong. If you loved or hated a movie and others felt exactly the opposite, that is the way it is supposed to be. Fiction and non-fiction movies are often looked at differently, as you are more apt to be critical of non-fiction, whereas you can take more liberties when dealing with fiction. I cannot conceive how anyone can say Secretariat was the best racing movie. But I am not about to try to change their mind. If they enjoyed it, despite the numerous historical inaccuracies, it is no different than me still loving The Jolson Story and envisioning Larry Parks as Jolson.

So, here are my 10 favorite racing movies, all of which affected me in different ways and on different levels, whether it be historical accuracy, emotional impact, or overall enjoyment.

1-PHAR LAP - Simply the most faithful biography of a racehorse of all time; beautifully told and beautifully filmed, and extremely well acted. To add to the realism, the horse who played Phar Lap was the splitting image of the legendary Australian champion. The film even used actual newspaper pages reporting his controversial death in California. It is visually stunning, portrays no stereotypes, and is not afraid to expose the human frailties of its main characters. The only noticeable flaw is the film's insinuation that Phar Lap was killed by mobsters, while failing to offer the alternative possibility that he was accidentally poisoned by ingesting pesticides sprayed on a field where he was grazing. But if you love horses and racing, this is a must see.

2-CHAMPIONS - Jockey battles back from cancer and is reunited with his horse, who has simultaneously returned from a serious injury, and the pair team up to win the Grand National Steeplechase. Had the story of Bob Champion and Aldaniti not been true, it would have been considered too unrealistic and too Hollywood. But it was true, and what separated Champions from other equine biographies was Aldaniti playing himself. That was a stroke of genius and you kept thinking of that as you watched him re-enact the events of his life. Many objected to the depiction of Champion's battle with cancer in agonizing detail, taking up a great deal of the film, but its candor only helped to enhance the story's emotional, fairy tale ending. And the filming of the Grand National was nothing short of spectacular.

3-KENTUCKY - This is the granddaddy of all horse racing movies, the formula that was used in many of the films that followed. It even resembles the story of Secretariat --girl (played here by Loretta Young) returns home to save the family farm nd wins the Kentucky Derby. Centered around a longstanding family feud, the opening scenes during the Civil War are gut-wrenching. But that is followed by magnificent color footage of greats such as Man o'War, Gallant Fox, Fair Play and other top stallions at stud that look as if they were shot today. It brought those horses to life. One of the great racing characters of any racing film was portrayed by Walter Brennan, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as a crotchety old hardboot, even though, in reality, he was only in his 30s. One of the classic scenes was when the manager of the rival farm was trying to hide their top prospect from Brennan, who was there to collect on a wager, in which he could pick out any 2-year-old he wanted. We see a black groom dancing down the shed row singing, "Postman worked in :48, goin' to the races, goin' to the races." Brennan dancing alongside him, goes, "Where's he at? Where's he at?" And the groom sings back, "Over in the tack shed, over in the tack shed." You'll have to get past the black stereotypes, but have to remember the film was made in 1938. All in all, this was great fun and includes footage of Lawrin winning the Kentucky Derby, which was Eddie Arcaro's first Derby winner.

4-BOOTS MALONE - This gritty 1952 film starring William Holden pulls no punches and depicts life on the backstretch with stark realism. It is as well acted and as well written as any racing movie, and has an excellent and thought-provoking plot that moves along at a swift pace and takes you to places most people have never been to, focusing on a young jockey and his down-on-his-luck agent. Holden is terrific as usual, going from successful agent, living high in the fanciest hotels, to living in a tack room and trying to scrape up a few dollars after his star jockey is killed. He gets enough to buy a cheap horse and then discovers a green aspiring young rider who has run away from his rich family. This is unlike any racing movie in that it does not glorify the sport and is not afraid to show you its underbelly. 

5-IT AIN'T HAY - Without a doubt the funniest racing movie ever made, starring Abbott and Costello, who unleash a barrage of racing bits that are hysterical, especially one that takes place in a betting parlor that is a classic. I won't ruin it for you. The movie has an assortment of characters, including several Damon Runyon characters (it was based on a Damon Runyon story), and shows you brief scenes of old Saratoga in front of the majestic Grand Union Hotel and has a star racehorse named Teabiscuit. It also has a botched horsenapping due to mistaken identity, as Abbott and Costello steal Teabiscuit by mistake, and even throws in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It's just crazy fun, with a feel of Saratoga and Runyonesque characters, and with a gripping emotional scene that really tugs at the heartstrings and ignites the main plot of the film. I never get tired of watching this movie, as it makes me laugh every time.

6-LET IT RIDE - People either loved or hated this film about a degenerate gambler, played by Richard Dreyfus, who normally is your typical loser, but has the one day every horseplayer dreams about. It is a never-ending day, shot at Hialeah Racetrack, in which Dreyfus leaves the track several times to go to the bar across the street to hang out with his cronies or goes home to his frantic wife, who has had it with his gambling...and losing. But no matter what he does, he can't lose. And it all starts with an insider's tip overheard in a taxi cab that has nefarious implications. The people who disliked the movie and found it far-fetched don't see it for what it is - the fantasy of every horseplayer. If you look at it as pure fantasy you're more likely to enjoy it. It captures the frenzy of the racetrack and every type of crazed horseplayer imaginable.

7-CASEY'S SHADOW - I'm venturing away from Thoroughbred racing to include this well-made film that takes place in the world of Quarter-Horse racing. It stars Walter Matthau and is loosely based on the Romero brothers (Randy and Gerald). It is an extremely realistic look at the Quarter-Horse world, well acted, and beautifully photographed, especially the sequences of Casey's Shadow growing from foal to full-grown racehorse that can easily induce goosebumps. The plot got a little too formulated in the second half of the film, with the obligatory gangsters. But all in all it was a wonderfully made and highly entertaining movie.

8-50 TO 1 - I have been critical of most modern racing movies, and this film did take a few liberties. But having lived through and chronicled the story of Mine That Bird, I feel this film captured the amazing journey of the second-biggest longshot to ever win the Kentucky Derby, and did it in an entertaining manner, combining actual footage of the Derby with recreations, and using a horse who looked exactly like Mine That Bird. Many times, you can't tell the actual footage from the footage shot for the movie. Although they used Bob Baffert as the heavy or the foil, which was just a bit over the top, the actor who played Baffert had his mannerisms (and his hair) down pat. And the colt's jockey, Calvin Borel, who played himself, was a pure joy. The biggest deviation from the truth was using a female exercise rider to accompany Chip Woolley on his trek across the country instead of Charlie Figueroa, who was in reality the exercise rider and his travel companion. But it actually worked, and I enjoyed the platonic and at times hostile relationship between the two, which helped make the journey more interesting and bring out Woolley's character. This film should have received bigger exposure, but it is well worth looking for. Although it is ranked No. 8, remember, it is No. 3 when it comes to horse biographies.

9-SEABISCUIT - This was a relatively high-budget film that was very well made and filmed in dramatic fashion, from the bush track match races to the match race with War Admiral. The movie focused quite a bit on the back stories of the humans behind the horse and the struggles during the Depression, But as a pure horse racing movie and biography it took a very long time before Seabiscuit was even introduced. And to make up for lost time, they turned him into a national celebrity after only a few victories in lesser stakes, and then embellished the David vs. Goliath theme by making War Admiral some 18-hands behemoth when he was actually the same size as Seabiscuit. They did a super job filming the match race, Gary Stevens was excellent, and all in all it was a good movie, even if it did take forever to get to Seabiscuit. I probably would have ranked this movie higher if I had never read Laura Hillenbrand's epic biography. In the book, the backdrop was an integral part of the story, but it is difficult to condense everything in the book into a two hour and 20-minute film, even though the movie seemed long, waiting for Seabiscuit to be introduced. I watched it recently and it still seemed long. Then it appeared to rush through the second half of the movie.  

10-NATIONAL VELVET - This is the movie that has spawned more female horse lovers than any in history. It is the story, beautifully told and photographed, of a 14-year-old horse-crazy Velvet Brown, who falls in love with a wild horse named The Pie, and winds up substituting for his regular jockey and riding him to victory in the Grand National, only to be disqualified. But that doesn't matter. This film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, is the standard by which all movies and books about young girls who love horses is measured. So many young girls have aspired to be jockeys after having watched this film. Yes it is a typical Hollywood plot for its time, but who cares. As mentioned it earlier, it hits you on an emotional level, and is well-written, well-acted, and beautifully photographed.


THE BLACK STALLION - This isn't in the Top 10 because it isn't a horse racing film in the true sense. It is more about a horse and a boy and a desert island, with the last part of the movie focusing on a horse race. If you do consider it a horse racing movie, then it definitely belongs in the Top 10, as it is absolutely stunning, with another excellent performance by Mickey Rooney and a spectacularly filmed horse race. The scenes on the desert island of this magnificent black horse and the stranded boy slowly interacting are truly brilliant, and you won't find more beautifully filmed scenes than the ones of "The Black" running through the water.

THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER - Also not a true racing movie, but one of the really great movies, about a young boy in England who rides his rocking horse frantically, and the faster he goes he can predict the winners at the track. There is a lot more to this innovative plot. It has superb acting and is extremely thought provoking. Not a easy film to find.

THE KILLING - One of Stanley Kubrick's early films that is as close as you'll get to racing film noir. It is filmed almost like a stage play, with surreal backdrops, and is not for the faint of heart, as it is pretty violent at times, with the plot focusing about the attempt of a bunch of hoods to make a killing at the track...literally, by shooting the favorite during the race and disguising the crime so that no one knows just what happened. It is like watching the proverbial train wreck - disturbing, but you can't take you're eyes off it, either despite of or because of the simplicity in the way it is filmed.

THE STORY OF SEABISCUIT - Not to be confused with Seabiscuit, this fictionalized biography stars Shirley Temple and an excellent Barry Fitzgerald, and is actually pretty entertaining for what it is. But if you want to see great actual film footage of the Seabiscuit -- War Admiral match race, you definitely want to see this movie.

GLORY - Don't confuse this 1956 film with the more modern Civil War film. The plot is totally far-fetched about a filly who was born during an electrical storm and somehow makes it to the Kentucky Derby off one six-furlong claiming race. But the reasons to watch it include the excellent acting and biting dialogue between Walter Brennan and Charlotte Greenwood and the film footage of Swaps defeating Nashua in the Derby. It portrays racing in general in an intelligent way, but you just have look past the crazy plot.

SECRETARIAT - As many major faults as this movie has, I am going to give it somewhat of a pass because of how much the budget was cut by Disney. And they made it way too Disneyesque, with poor location choices. I won't even bore you with all the problems I had with the movie, as most of you had the same problems. But I did like the beginning when Penny Tweedy is called from her home in Colorado to come back to Virginia and help save the farm. The problem with making a movie about a horse that looked like Secretariat is that you can never find a horse physically worthy of portraying him. The same went for the very disappointing RUFFIAN (No one disliked this movie more than Frank Whitelely). Neither of these films came close to doing justice to the actual horse. The Secretariat movie also was extremely miscast, with only Diane Lane being believable. John Malkovich was laughable as Lucien Laurin, and Pancho Martin was portrayed pretty much as a thug.  If you're young and have no recollection of Secretariat and can ignore all the nonsensical scenes, you will probably enjoy it, and at least it brings Secretariat to the big screen. So for that, it is worth watching. 

RIDING HIGH - This was an excellent vehicle for racing lover Bing Crosby, and the end of the movie will tear your heart out. But this film was a remake of the 1934 movie titled BROADWAY BILL. Frank Capra was so dissatisfied with the original he remade it in 1950 with plenty of songs. The only problem was that for some reason Capra left in a number of scenes from the original movie, and it was so obvious these scenes were from an older movie with different actors.

SPORTING BLOOD - This is a real oldie made in 1931 starring a young Clark Gable. Not only is it very well made, with an interesting plot, it contains the most remarkable footage ever shot at the Kentucky Derby, in this case the 1930 running, with the movie interacting with the footage. You have to see it to believe it. It occasionally pops up on Turner Classic Movies.

A DAY AT THE RACES - Typical Marx Bothers wackiness that wasn't that much about racing. But there was a classic line when Groucho, playing a horse doctor, was treating a horse in his office and gave him a bottle of pills and told him, "Take two every half mile."

DOWN THE STRETCH - Mickey Rooney is terrific playing a jockey with an attitude named Snapper Sinclair. It is a pretty interesting plot with your typical race fixing, but with loyalty, good conscience, and clearing your father's name added to the mix. 

SARATOGA - This was a pretty high-profile movie in 1937 starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlowe and Lionel Barrymore. It is a witty and intelligent movie, more about betting and high rollers, with Gable playing a bookie. I remember finding it quite enjoyable. 

THE STING - Although this is not a racing movie, it has a great racing flavor when the action takes place at a makeshift bookie parlor, and they even mention Mo Annenberg, who invented the wire and owned the Morning Telegraph. The greatest movie tip of all time -- "Place it on Lucky Dan." Even if it's not a racing movie, it is one of the great movies of all time and definitely worth watching more than once. 

THE LEMON DROP KID - This is another Damon Runyon story about a racetrack tout, played by Bob Hope. Again, there isn't a lot of racing in it, but it did become famous for introducing the classic Christmas song Silver Bells.

MY OLD MAN - Adapted from an Ernest Hemingway short story, this was a pretty decent made for TV film with an excellent performance by Warren Oates.

DREAMER - Many people liked this film, but I had a major problem with Dakota Fanning, who I found annoying enough to not enjoy it. So I can't judge this film fairly. 

THE HOMESTRETCH - This little known filming starring Maureen O'Hara and Cornell Wilde is pretty entertaining, taking you from Argentina to Saratoga to Churchill Downs, and has a solid enough plot. It's not your standard fare and well worth looking for, if it even exists anymore.

BLACK GOLD - One of the great stories of the Turf, this movie, starring Anthony Quinn, takes a lot of liberties and embellishes the story of Rosa Hoots and the improbable Kentucky  Derby winner Black Gold, but it's still a fun movie. 

WALL OF NOISE - Even lesser known than The Homestretch, I barely remember it, but I do remember enjoying it. Starring Suzanne Pleshette and TV star Ty Hardin, it is far from a classic, but fairly enjoyable. 

At some point in the future I will list my favorite horse racing documentaries, and there are plenty of excellent ones to choose from.

Recent Posts


More Blogs