07/14/2017 1:50PM

Hovdey: Old-time flicks always had the horse right here


Since horse racing is no longer a significant part of the American sporting conversation, treated more like a novelty item from a lonely shelf of cultural curios, it comes as a pleasant surprise to hear the game mentioned at all.

Oh, sure, the locals here on the San Diego coast are revving up for Del Mar, but the attention is skin deep, evaporating after the summer meet ends, just as national interest dies when the Derby winner fails to take the Preakness. Yes, the meet starts on July 19. And, yes, I can get you passes.

The rest of us poor souls, committed to loving the game for life, remain attuned to any stray racing reference, longing to hear even the slightest wisp of our native tongue.

It happened to this reporter the other day while multitasking away in front of a PC screen filled with news that was either bad or weird. The conventional TV was off to the side, playing some bygone entry on TCM, all shadowy and noir. Then I heard this:

“Corn Cracker was a colt. He was a tall, black colt.”

And I turned to see Sterling Hayden sitting on the edge of a bed, talking to his girl, Jean Hagen, about a dream.

“You know something?” Hayden went on. “One of our ancestors imported the first Irish Thoroughbred into our county. Our farm was in the family for generations – 163 acres, 30 in bluegrass and the rest in crops. Fine barn and seven broodmares.”

I was watching “The Asphalt Jungle” from 1950, the best caper flick this side of “The Sting,” and the slow revealing of the linchpin character Dix Handley, a Kentucky lad gone bad.

“Then everything happened at once,” Dix said. “My old man died. We lost our corn crop. That black colt I was telling you about broke his leg and had to be shot. That was a rotten year. I’ll never forget the day we left. Me and my brother swore we’d buy Hickory Wood Farm back someday … 12 grand would’ve swung it, and I almost made it once. I had more than $5,000 in my pocket. “Pompoon was running in the Suburban. I figured he couldn’t lose. I put it all on his nose. He lost by a nose.”

:: Get PPs, clocker reports, and more for the Saratoga and Del Mar meets

What sweet music. It was the Suburban of 1938, and Pompoon did lose by a nose, to Snark. It didn’t even bother me that Hayden pronounced the name of the horse “Pampoon.” Could have been a typo in the script, which was written by Ben Maddow and director John Huston, a die-hard horseplayer of notoriously inept skill, as well as a close friend of Billy Pearson, the jockey/raconteur whose autobiography, “Never Look Back,” should be required reading for any serious racing fan.

Movies once were regularly laced with racing jargon, just as tech talk litters the dialogue of contemporary entertainment. You don’t need to be a student of Freud to derive oily enjoyment from the classic Bogart-Bacall exchange from “The Big Sleep,” as ripe today as it was when released in 1946:

Her: “I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, then come home free.”

Him: “You don’t like to be rated yourself.”

Her: “I haven’t met anyone yet who could do it. Any suggestions?”

Him: “Well, I can’t tell until I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.”

Her: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”

William Faulkner wrote the screenplay with Leigh Brackett, who went on to become one of the most successful woman screenwriters in history.

It takes a strong stomach to sit through one of the early Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedies. I suppose they sounded funny on paper. Having been teased by the class of “The Asphalt Jungle,” I wandered innocently to “Money From Home” from 1953, based on a Damon Runyon story of no particular pedigree.

Decorated with names like No Knees Nolan, Lead Pipe Louie, and the Society Kid, the opening plays like a cut-rate “Guys and Dolls,” which it is until Martin shows up as the down-market bookie Honey Talk Nelson and leaks his charm over the proceedings.

Society Kid: “Stop mooching from the fraternity, Honey Talk.”

Nelson: “What’s the matter – you geniuses never had a losing streak?”

Hot Horse Herbie: “Everybody’s entitled to a losing streak. But 126 days out of the money, you’re abusing the privilege.”

Warning though: Do not continue viewing past the 7 1/2-minute mark. Jerry Lewis ensues.

Racing references have all but disappeared in modern entertainment, except historical dramas that can hardly avoid the horse. Cillian Murphy riding his black Thoroughbred bareback through the slums of Birmingham in the first episode of “Peaky Blinders” is worth a year’s worth of Netflix dues. But Hollywood isn’t forking over the kind of money it takes to make another “Seabiscuit.”

Pray, then, for the Hungarians behind “Kincsem – Bet on Revenge” to find some kind of U.S. distribution deal. The sweeping tale of love, lust, betrayal, and payback is carried on the shoulders of the legendary 19th century European mare who won all 54 of her starts. The homegrown epic has been outdrawing all the international box-office competition in Hungary, including “Fifty Shades Darker.” That alone is reason for hope.