02/28/2014 3:40PM

Jay Hovdey: Racing best suited as supporting player on film


Two of the best films of 2013 were sports movies – “Rush” and “42” – and between them they got exactly zero Academy Award nominations. So much for Sunday’s Oscars.

“Rush” combined car racing, sex, and death, while “42” was about baseball and civil rights. Both sound like perfect recipes for awards recognition, but what do I know? I still think Jason Stratham is the most underrated actor of our time.

Anyway, there were no theatrical releases in 2013 that had horse racing as a subject, but there was one fabulous horse in “The Lone Ranger” who stole every scene he was in, aided and abetted by a considerable amount of computer graphics imaging.

As good as Steve Coogan is in “Philomena,” a movie he also wrote, it is impossible to watch him do anything without thinking of his alter-ego, Alan Partridge, a thick-as-a-brick British television commentator spending a day at the races and informing his viewers:

“The Queen Henry Stakes is generally regarded as a litmus test for Derby form. Jockey folklore says that if you cock up the Queen Henry, you might as well ride the Derby on a cow.”

Those poor souls who love both horse racing and good movies are resigned to the fact that the twain rarely meet, especially if the last two viewed were “Secretariat,” a grand tale that got hopelessly Disneyed, and “And They’re Off,” an uneven attempt at a racetrack mockumentary that actually had a few knowing moments that were almost too true to be funny.

Everyone within shouting distance of this column has his or her own list of all-time favorite horse racing movies. The usual suspects pop up every time – “Let It Ride,” “National Velvet,” “Phar Lap,” “Casey’s Shadow,” “The Black Stallion,” “Seabiscuit.” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” is not about horse racing, but it is a great film noir heist flick set at a racetrack. Ditto “The Grifters,” by Stephen Frears. As for “The Rocking Horse Winner,” that’s just plain creepy.

Horse racing in films often can be the most satisfying when used as setting, or when narrowly woven into the texture of the plot. Think of Sean Connery and Tippi Hedrin enjoying the day at Atlantic City Race Course in a key scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” when the sight of red racing silks set off one of her panic attacks, or the use of a Preakness pool as code in a coup attempt in the political thriller “Seven Days in May,” or of Michael Caine’s chilling encounter with a lowlife at the races in “Get Carter.”

Cindy Pierson Dulay maintains a comprehensive list of racing movies at her Horse-Races.net website, reaching back to the days when the studios cranked them out by the carload. If a racing movie was made in the 1930s or into the 1940s, chances are it was some kind of weepy melodrama based on a Damon Runyon story that either had Al Jolson in black face crooning to a newborn foal named Sunshine, or Shirley Temple worming her way into the hearts of hard men and then fighting for her life in “Little Miss Marker.” Diabetics beware.

Gratefully, the Marx Brothers came along with “A Day at the Races” in 1937, which was shot at a Santa Anita Park that is familiar to this day. Bob Hope gave the 1951 version of “The Lemon Drop Kid” just the irreverent zip it needed to stay above the schmaltz. And then, in 1952, came “Boots Malone.”

By way of full disclosure, I could watch William Holden read the Yellow Pages and feel like I got my money’s worth. From “Sunset Boulevard” to “Stalag 17” to “The Wild Bunch” to “Network,” Holden was all that a movie star should be, and still be an actor of consummate quality. I’ve long forgiven him for “The Towering Inferno,” and anyway, I’m sure he was well paid.

“Boots Malone” does not try to dumb down horse racing. The stereotypical characters are all in place – the down-and-out jock’s agent, the crusty trainer, the young jockey full of hope – but the dialogue cuts though most clichés and the performances tap into scenes written and directed by people who had learned the racing world first hand, instead of from other racing movies. Also, Holden rides a pony like he was born to it. The German-born William Dieterle, who did “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” was the director.

Whether or not current movie-making can find another “Boots Malone” is problematic. Horses have become iconic in American culture, far removed from anything resembling everyday life, while gambling on horses is no more or less interesting than betting on football, basketball, poker, or the Oscars. By the way, “12 Years a Slave” is a stone-cold Best Picture lock.

If the reality show “Horseplayers” on cable is the best that racing can do right now, the market has spoken. In 1961, by comparison, an episode of the weekly “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” on television offered a tight little drama called “The Horseplayer” starring Claude Rains as a small-town parish priest who encounters a gambler who has been praying his way to a great run at the track.

“Prayer isn’t intended for horse races,” says the priest. “You can’t pray for your purse and neglect your soul.”

Unless, of course, there’s a huge carryover.