05/09/2014 3:12PM

Hovdey: Racing gets a love letter on film


It is one thing to spend a lifetime in abject hero worship of your father. It’s entirely another to walk a few miles in his shoes.

That is exactly what Daryle Ann Lindley Giardino has done, however, by winning a Wrangler Award given by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City for the Thoroughbred racing documentary “Behind the Gate,” produced with her husband, Mark Giardino.

Daryle Ann’s father was Louis Lindley Jr. If the name’s not familiar, don’t worry. When he hit the rodeo circuit he was told he needed a catchier handle, so Louis Lindley became Slim Pickens – champion bronc rider, rodeo clown, movie star.

Slim Pickens played the sadistic deputy in “One-Eyed Jacks,” Hedley Lamar’s henchman in “Blazing Saddles,” and Major “King” Kong in “Dr. Strangelove,” a part that provided the actor with one of the most iconic moments in film history, as he straddled a freshly dropped hydrogen bomb, screaming “yee haw” and fanning it with his Stetson. Pickens also gets credit for one of the most achingly poignant death scenes this side of Juliet’s, courtesy of Sam Peckinpah in “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.”

Pickens is in two of the three Halls of Fame at the Cowboy Museum: the one for Great Western Performers (alongside John Wayne and Steve McQueen) and Rodeo Performers (which includes Ray Bell and Yakima Canutt). One of the highlights of his daughter’s life was the Western Performers induction ceremony in 1982 and the unveiling of the official portrait of Pickens and fellow inductee Ben Johnson, which captured the two cowboys in full glory driving a Wells Fargo stage.

But enough about Slim. The Giardinos are rightly proud of their movie, which is nothing less than a valentine to the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Tapping into their show business connections, they were able to include a sprinkling of real-world celebrities in among the familiar racing faces that populate the documentary with a variety of perspectives from the hard-core gamblers and horseplayers in the trenches, to the starry-eyed fans looking for the next Black Stallion.

Since heredity is impossible to ignore, Daryle Ann can’t start the day without a horseback ride on the trails around the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. An afternoon at the races would complete the perfect day.

“My dad died in 1983,” she said. “That sounds like a long time ago, but I feel his presence in so many ways. There was nothing he couldn’t do with a horse. When he was on one you couldn’t tell where the horse stopped and he began. I got my love of horses from my dad. I can’t get them out of my blood. I hope that shows through in the film.”

Daryle Ann’s riding partner is the 18-year-old former Thoroughbred Megan’s Lad, whose racing career for the Giardinos ended at age 4.

“Dad had me breaking horses for the track when I was 12 years old,” she went on. “Our trainer was Farrell Jones – Gary’s father – and we were at the track all the time when dad wasn’t working on a movie.”

“Behind the Gate” is narrated by the Oscar-winning Joe Pesci, a flashy piece of casting that would seem to be a heavy lift for such a niche documentary project. For the Giardinos, though, getting Pesci was a snap. They raced the stakes-winning filly Pesci together a decade ago, and since then Joe Pesci – actor and lifelong horseplayer – has been chasing the dream as a breeder and an owner.

“I’ve been trying to get one that good ever since,” Pesci said not long ago.

Mark Giardino directed “Behind the Gate” with Jack Lucarelli. Mike Post, TV’s most prolific composer, did the score. Neither were the Giardinos shy about stepping in front of the camera to share the story of their own horses, the giddy highs and the frustrating lows.

“We wanted to show horse racing in a positive light, but a realistic light as well,” Daryle Ann said. “There are so many things that go into the sport behind the scenes that we think people would love to know about. I want people to understand the care that goes into these animals, and that for the people who care for them it’s not just a 9-to-5 job.”

Everyone and his lazy brother seems to be making a documentary of some kind these days – blame it on the success of Errol Morris and Michael Moore – which means the real challenge is getting a worthwhile final product seen by anyone other than relatives and close friends.

The Giardinos also have secured a group of backers, including Santa Anita Park and NYRA, which has jump-started racing industry interest. “Behind the Gate” – they get to call it “award-winning” now – will be making its web-streaming debut sometime during the Triple Crown, which is only right, since Slim Pickens was born in the Central Valley town of Kingsburg, just up the road from the birthplace, 92 years later, of California Chrome.