09/30/2010 5:50PM

Christine's best and worst racing movies

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HITS

1. Phar Lap (1983)
Since I started ranking films in 1989, I’ve revisited many of them, and upgraded and downgraded some, and of course added new ones, but this one has always been the gold standard. A hint to moviemakers planning a movie on a real horse: If the story’s good enough, you don’t have to make anything up. “Phar Lap,” “Champions” and “Seabiscuit” were such gripping pukka stories that no one had to doctor the saga. So was the story of Secretariat, but what can I tell you? For “Phar Lap,” the Australian director Simon Wincer took the life of a revered New Zealand-bred and let it run to its bittersweet conclusion – the landmark win in a $100,000 race in Mexico and the horse’s mysterious death in Northern California. Wincer dug deep to make sure the warts on Phar Lap’s trainer (played by Martin Vaughan) showed. Ron Leibman, playing the owner of the horse, was appropriately mercenary. Tom Burlinson had a fine turn as Phar Lap’s groom.

2. Champions (1984)
This British entry would seem far-fetched if the story of jockey Bob Champion and his oft-injured veteran steeplechaser, Aldaniti, weren’t the real goods. The filmmakers were able to lather on the heartaches without being mawkish. Champion was a recovering cancer patient who rode Aldaniti to victory in the 1981 Grand National, England’s 4 1/2-mile marathon. In perfect casting, John Hurt played Champion and Aldaniti, who was 11 when he won the race, played himself.

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3. The Killing (1956)
Stanley Kubrick, looking for a break-out picture, did this taut telling of a race-track heist (at Bay Meadows, after a few East Coast tracks got cold feet). Sterling Hayden, playing the ringleader of the mob, worked for $40,000 as Kubrick, taking no salary, shot the whole thing in 24 days. There’s a who’s who of character actors, including one of my favorites, Elisha Cook Jr., who was as wide-eyed and nebbishy as ever. I won’t spoil Kubrick’s O. Henry ending, but the caveat about airplane travel still applied then: Don’t overpack.

4. Seabiscuit (2003)
Full disclosure: My wife Pat and I were non-speaking extras for this film. Gary Ross did well by Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller, earning a best-picture Oscar nomination. I’m not a Tobey Maguire fan, both because of this picture (as the jockey Red Pollard) and others, but Jeff Bridges (who was Charles S. Howard, the owner of Seabiscuit), Chris Cooper (the trainer Silent Tom Smith) and Gary Stevens (the jockey George Woolf) were pitch-perfect in their roles, and William H. Macy, with just a few pages to work with, stole the show as the motor-mouthed sportscaster who lightened the load of the Depression-era tale.

5. Premieres Armes (1950)
Every list deserves a sleeper. The title means “The First Weapons” in English and it was released, under the title “The Winner’s Circle” in 1958 in the U.S. It’s a dour French story about a 14-year-old boy who is sent by his father from Paris to Bordeaux to learn to become a jockey. The boy matures rapidly in the face of persecutions and abuse from the stable’s trainer and rival jockeys. The film pulls no punches in portraying the boy’s hard-knock existence. Rene Wheeler (co-writer of “Rififi,” the quintessential caper picture) wrote and directed.

 

MISSES

1. The Story of Seabiscuit (1949)
There have been so many bad racing movies that I don’t know where to start. What better place than “The Story of Seabiscuit,” the sorry forerunner to “Seabiscuit,” which should have been accompanied by the disclaimer, “Any similarity between this film and the real story is purely coincidental.” None of the real names were used, except for Seabiscuit and Charles H. Howard, owner of the horse. All you need to know is that Barry Fitzgerald plays a trainer and Shirley Temple, as his daughter and in her last film, fails abysmally trying to sound Irish. The only redeeming feature is newsreel footage of some of Seabiscuit’s races, including his epic showdown with War Admiral at Pimlico.

2. Pride of the Blue Grass (1939)
Arguably, 1939 was the best year for great films (“Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Gunga Din,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” and “Wuthering Heights” is just a partial list). Then there is this clunker. They sure don’t write ’em like this anymore. While a mare is foaling, lightning strikes the barn and and kills her owner. The horse is ridden by the son of the owner in the Kentucky Derby, but goes blind and the jockey is suspended for a year. The horse returns, still blind, to win the Grand National, England’s premier steeplechase race. Not to be confused with another picture with the same name in 1954. Not to be confused with anything.

3. Going Places (1939)
Take a score by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. Add Louie Armstrong, a 15-year-old Dorothy Dandridge and Maxine Sullivan. Assemble a cast that includes Dick Powell, Anita Louise, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (and Ronald Reagan, but that’s another story). What you get is a dopey story about Jeepers Creepers, a horse who will only run when he hears the song of the same name. The climactic scene is a steeplechase race in which Satchmo and his orchestra follow the horse around the track on a flatbed truck.

4. Glory (1956)
Gene Markey, who wrote the screenplay, was married at the time to Lucille Wright, the grande dame of Calumet Farm. Markey may have written the story on his lunch hour, and it looks like it. “It’s about as tasty as eating hay, but at least it won’t choke you to death,” wrote one charitable reviewer. Margaret O’Brien, in her first adult role, can’t choose between her horse and her suitor. Walter Brennan, who could have made a living doing horse pictures, couldn’t save this one. Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro play themselves.

5. Hot To Trot (1988)
Full disclosure: Ex-jockey Tommy Wolski, a good friend, is in this turkey. Sorry, Tommy. It’s about a talking horse, who was first played by Elliot Gould, then replaced by John Candy. After the picture was in the can, a writer named Andy Breckman was called in to rewrite the dialogue, only to be told, for whatever reason, that he could rewrite the horse’s lines, but not the actors’ lines speaking to him. Then Candy threw out the script and ad-libbed all his lines. Bravely, Breckman went to a theater in Manhattan to see how it turned out. “One, please,” he said to the woman at the box office. She wanted to make sure: “You know, don’t you, that this is ‘Hot To Trot’?”

Rick Cook More than 1 year ago
for the life of me I cant understand why they don't take the time to make horse racing movies accurate. in pharlap the groom and his girlfriend took the horse on a pick nick and let the horse run free through the trees. sure they did. I wonder if bob baffert will let his groom take American pharaoh on a pick nick before the Belmont. seabisquit was horrible they kept showing people walking the horse from the wrong side etc.. in ruffian movie they kept showing her training on a track all by herself. in secretariat they kept showing the horse at the farm right after a race. it wouldn't be that hard to get it right.