Hollywood can’t resist an old-fashioned underdog story, like “Seabiscuit”, or a comedic romp, like “A Day at the Races.” And the tearjerkers like “The Black Stallion” and “National Velvet” get us every time. With so many stories to tell in the sport of horse racing, it’s no surprise Hollywood comes calling time and time again. We take a look at 10 must-see horse racing movies.
The Lemon Drop Kid
A showcase for Bob Hope at the prime of his career, “The Lemon Drop Kid” was a 1951 remake of a 1934 film of the same name. Hope plays a racetrack swindler who goes on the run after one of his marks turns out to be the girlfriend of a mobster. Comic adventure ensues. This one has a special place in our hearts for inspiring the name of 1999 Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid.
Perhaps the best horse of all-time, Secretariat can thank “Seabiscuit” for reviving the equine biopic. It took 37 years for Hollywood to chronicle Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown tour de force. It was worth the wait. The 2010 film, simply titled “Secretariat,” is a faithful retelling of events. Diane Lane portrays Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenerey, who entered the sport after taking over her ailing father’s breeding farm. Chenerey thrives in the male-dominated sport. The film captures just how popular the horse became among casual sports fans, a bright spot in a summer dominated by Watergate headlines.
Whereas the sentimental or inspirational dominate horse racing movie themes, “Shergar” goes dark. This 1999 film tells the story of a champion Irish racehorse who is abducted by Irish Republican Army terrorists who hatch a plot to use ransom funds to acquire weapons. In the film, Shergar is rescued by an orphan boy. But the real Shergar, who won the 1981 Epsom Derby by 10 lengths, was never found, and authorities never made an arrest. The prevailing theory is the thieves were unable to control the high-strung animal and shot him within hours stealing him from his stall.
Let it Ride
OK, so this 1989 flick starring Richard Dreyfuss won’t rank alongside “The Goodbye Girl” or “Mr. Holland’s Opus” among his greatest works. Nor is it a favorite among horse racing insiders who take themselves a bit too seriously. “Let it Ride” is a farce. Dreyfuss plays Jay Trotter, a hapless railbird who goes on the run of a lifetime and spends a day at the track teetering on the edge of blowing it all. Sure, it takes liberties with reality. But wouldn’t you like to have a winning streak like that?
Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story
Now, this is a tried-and-true Hollywood formula: likable little girl forms a special bond with horse and fights to save said horse. The 2005 movie “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story” follows Cale Crane, played by Dakota Fanning, as she convinces her father, a racehorse trainer, not to put down an injured animal. As she helps care for the horse at their farm, she also grows closer to her father, played by Kurt Russell. The horse, Sonador, was loosely based on the real Mariah’s Storm, who broke a cannon bone as a 2-year-old, yet recovered to win a stakes race at age 4.
The name Phar Lap is spoken with reverence in Australia to this day. Phar Lap won 22 stakes races from 1928-32 and captured the nation’s imagination during the early days of the worldwide economic depression. The 1983 movie “Phar Lap” has remarkable racing scenes and captures the era well. It focuses on the bond between the horse and his groom. Phar Lap left Australia to race in North America, but died after winning a 1932 race at Aqua Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico, and speculation is that he was poisoned. Among his nicknames is “Big Red,” which he shares with the equally revered Secretariat.
It doesn’t get much better than this, as far as biopics go. It helps that Seabiscuit was a true rags-to-riches story and a fan favorite. The 2003 movie “Seabiscuit,” starring Tobey Maguire as jockey Red Pollard, remembers the events warmly. Though the human story is compelling, it’s the horse racing that makes this movie stand apart. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens took on the role of jockey George Woolf, and the race scenes put the audience in the saddle like few other movies have.
A Day at the Races
The Marx Brothers break out their finest high jinks in “A Day at the Races.” What better backdrop for their mix of zany physical comedy and Groucho’s smart wit? The plot of this 1937 release involves Chico and Harpo harboring a racehorse at a sanitarium — where else? — before all hell breaks loose. But, really, who needs a plot? It’s the Marx Brothers; it’s horse racing. It’s a whole lot of fun.
The Black Stallion
Fair warning. Keep a box of tissues within reach for the last two on the list. The 1979 movie “The Black Stallion” is about a boy, Alec, and an Arabian horse who are stranded on an island after a shipwreck. At first distrustful, the horse comes to feed from Alec’s hand and later allows him to ride. The two are rescued, and “Black” shows the speed of a racehorse. Alec helps train him to challenge the champions of the day.
The ultimate “girl and her horse” story, “National Velvet” had the added bonus of superstar casting — a young Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney in 1944. Taylor plays Velvet, a 12-year-old girl who wins a horse in a raffle and convinces Rooney’s character to train it to run in the Grand National steeplechase, the most prestigious and challenging jumps race in English racing. When their jockey balks at riding in the race, Velvet does it herself.
Credit to Fox Sports