Like Mine That Bird's struggles in the winter and spring before his upset victory in the 2009 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), the movie that tells his story, "50 to 1", also plods along early, seemingly unsure about what story it wants to tell.
The good news for racing fans is the climactic Derby scene is done well enough to probably make this movie worth paying a small rental charge when it arrives on DVD April 28, a well-timed release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment less than a week before this year's Derby.
Rather than using the kind of special effects employed in the 2003 film "Seabiscuit" that put the viewer on the horse and in races, the Derby upset scene in 50-1 effectively mixes real footage from the race to present some interesting filmmaking. When mixing fiction and reality like that, it doesn't hurt that jockey Calvin Borel, who guided Mine That Bird to victory, plays himself.
It also doesn't hurt that Mine That Bird's rally is about as visually improbable as a race gets. It's incredible to see; every time. I wonder how many viewers unfamiliar with the story may think it was doctored by the movie? I just wish the movie had done a better job setting up that incredible finish.
Perhaps those less familiar with the story will enjoy the early scenes more but I found myself wanting a different tone, or at least a consistent tone. I think a more serious film looking at the real struggles of horsemen and jockeys in racing's minor leagues early in the picture would have given the viewer more appreciation for just what the connections of Mine That Bird eventually accomplish.
While trainer Chip Woolley's struggles (as portrayed by Skeet Ulrich) are documented, every time things start to get interesting, the film returns to a cornball tone. Those shifts in tone prevent the viewer from considering any real hardships faced by the characters.
Woolley's brother delivers bad financial news seemingly every time he shows up on screen. It's hinted that Woolley's drinking may be affecting his work life and his life in general, but these financial and personal problems are never fully tackled. Cut to Mine That Bird playing with a hose!
Oddly enough, I think if the movie had been played as a full-on comedy or kid's movie, it also would have been better than what ended up on screen. Instead, the movie never quite decides how it wants to tell this story with the incredible ending.
The movie deserves credit for mostly sticking to the script of what actually happened, although, like I said, some of these storylines could have been developed further.
Not that it's a big deal in terms of the effectiveness of the movie, but I found it humerous that in the movie Mine That Bird's poor showing in the 2008 Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) is blamed on the fact that he was making his first start on a synthetic surface in that race. In fact, Mine That Bird had won three stakes races on the Polytrack at Woodbine in 2008.
Blaming synthetics certainly was all the rage in that era! I've always thought that speed figure makers struggled with numbers for synthetic surfaces and that may have played a part in the low figures given to Mine That Bird in his juvenile races at Woodbine when he earned a Sovereign Award as Canada's top 2-year-old male.
Another notable exception in terms of movie accuracy is the portrayal of trainer Bob Baffert. The movie does no favors to the real-life Baffert. As portrayed in the movie, Baffert zings smack at 50-1 shots every chance he gets. He's also portrayed by an actor who resembles Tom Petty in a Baffert-like wig. It's all very strange.
That said, most horse racing fans will probably find enough here to enjoy. Approach this one with a smile on your face, and you'll probably be all right.