02/28/2014 4:40PM

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.

Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Come on Jay, usually your writting's are of interest, clearly some enjoyed reading this article but it's not for what this site is intended for, let's stick to the real deal not movie reviews. The Sport Of Kings is suffering enough without having you to now make it seem like the horse racing today is so boring that you don't know what to write about so you stray into being a movie critic. Please stick to your wonderful stories of reality not movie fiction your waisting your talent on these type of writings.
Daniel155 More than 1 year ago
There was a movie called "Dreamer" that was somewhat schmaltzy as the author would say but there was a part of the movie that poked fun at wealthy Saudi horse owners and don't forget "Francis Goes to the Races" where the talking mule talks to horses before the races and gives the names of the winners to Donald OConner with one exception. He says something like this, the sixth race is fillies. They don't even know who is going to win.
Daniel155 More than 1 year ago
Also there is a made for TV movie, "Ruffian" that is tolerable.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Tim Conway did a horsey movie, many moons ago. It was pretty good, for a comedy, and the "win photo" with Tim Conway waiving Stella Stevens red dress was funny as hail, and Jonathan Winters was in it, too.:-) Wasn't there one with Joe Piscopo and Capt Lou Albano, ha!! Pope of Greenwich village, about getting the um, luv juice from a Belmont winner, too..
Walter More than 1 year ago
It's only one scene, but cannot forget the use of Aqueduct in the movie "A Bronx Tale". C'mon Cryptonite!!
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Was that the horse that was "Mooshed?" :-)
Walter More than 1 year ago
Yes it was.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Saratoga with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow wasn`t too bad either. Harlow died after 90% filming completed and was replaced by Mary Dees.. OMG, the clothes were off the charts.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
OK, I can understand your "personal grief" for overlooking Landaluce, but Cary Grant over Sean C? I don't even want to know, let's let that be :) However, I would love to hear more about Landaluce, did you get to "know" her, was she approachable? 42 was a great movie, Harrison ford understated great performance, but when Pee Wee went up to Jackie and put his arm around him, best part of the movie, to me..PS, don't forget to dust that cup for Romano Gucci :-)
Saratogafan More than 1 year ago
Jay, I almost always love your articles, but today you made my day. Boots Malone is in my top 5 movies of all time. By the time I began watching an occasional movie on television in the mid 1960s, it had already been relegated to Saturday afternoon matinees on our local television stations in the Albany NY area. I hold the current distinction of being one of only 43 Facebook users in the world to list it as a favorite movie. 43 out of over a billion isn't bad! I tolerated the Seabiscuit movie and cringed my way through the Disney Secretariat fictional account. Boots is by far my #1 and you sir have climbed yet another notch in my hierarchy of writers.
Ann More than 1 year ago
And isn't it wonderful how Maryland looks nothing like Southern California? (According to a train schedule shown, the track should be in Maryland, while the scenery in Boots Malone is definitely SoCal. Paraphrase from Austin Powers. But i digress.) I believe that the owner who decides to sell White Cargo after one bad workout because he didn't want any bad horses in his barn is modeled on movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. He sold some very good horses out of his barn when they didn't look like good prospects early in their training. Obviously, I am a big fan of Boots Malone. Thanks for letting the younger set know about this fine black-and-white gem.
Daniel155 More than 1 year ago
The movie, "Secretariat" implies that the stable that Penny Tweedy is inheriting is a losing one but last year it had won the Kentucky Derby with Riva Ridge.
Gregory More than 1 year ago
Marnie, Cary Grant OR Sean Connery? . Outstanding hialee! Connery of course. Jay prides himself on accuracy when it comes to golden age popular culture but he got this one wrong. Bill Holden he got right, though. Bridge Over the River Kwai is a top 20 film, maybe top 10.
Gregory More than 1 year ago
Oops! "The Bridge on the River Kwai"
Lenny Mamola More than 1 year ago
waiting to see 50-1
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Say what you want about the re-make of "The Champ" (1979) starring, Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway, and Ricky Schroder. It possesses shots of, errr, Hialeah and, in particular, crowd scenes of 1978 Flamingo Day. "Wake up, Champ!" As a cosmic long-shot, "Francis Goes to the Races" (1951) outruns the odds. Francis picks 7 out of 8 by talking to the horses entered in each race. One race proves unsolvable as Francis exclaims, "Two year old fillies! Even they don't know who's gonna win." Of course.