Secretariat

Horse Racing Movies for the Holidays

Rather than rank the best or my favorite racing movies, because of their diversity let’s just break them down in categories to cater to people’s tastes and what they are looking for, whether it’s movies about racing in general, a famous horse, or betting. You have gut-wrenching, heartwarming, comedic, and gritty films and it’s difficult lumping them together and ranking them. So, whatever your pleasure, here are the movies I recommend, although many are hard to find. ~ Steve Haskin

Horse Racing Movies for the Holidays

By Steve Haskin

 

If you thought it was tough finding Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo dolls back in the ‘80s and ‘90s good luck trying to find horse racing movies. Once in the proverbial blue moon they’ll show up on TCM or some offbeat channel, so you will have to search Amazon and hope you find what you’re looking for.

With the holidays coming up, if you know a racing fan you want to surprise with a good racing movie here is a list you can choose from, depending on where their interest lies. Let’s start with the broadest category of them all.

ENTERTAINING:

50-1 – This should go in the horse bio category, but I am taking it one step farther because of its characters and pure entertainment value. I have been critical of most modern racing movies, and this film did take a few liberties. But having lived through and chronicled the story of Mine That Bird, I feel this film captured the amazing journey of the second-biggest longshot to ever win the Kentucky Derby at the time, and did it in an entertaining manner, combining actual footage of the Derby with recreations, and using a horse who looked exactly like Mine That Bird. Many times, you can’t tell the actual footage from the footage shot for the movie. Although they used Bob Baffert as the heavy or the foil, which was just a bit over the top, the actor who played Baffert had his mannerisms (and his hair) down pat. And the colt’s jockey, Calvin Borel, who played himself, was a pure joy. The biggest deviation from the truth was using a female exercise rider to accompany Chip Woolley on his trek across the country instead of Charlie Figueroa, who was in reality the exercise rider and his travel companion. But it actually worked, and I enjoyed the platonic and at times hostile relationship between the two, which helped make the journey more interesting and bring out Woolley’s character. This film should have received bigger exposure, but it is well worth looking for and once in a while can be found on TV. While this movie would rank no higher than No. 3 or 4 in the horse bio category behind two or three extremely well-made and beautifully filmed movies I always watch it when it’s on TV and it’s just as enjoyable every time.

KENTUCKY — This is the granddaddy of all horse racing movies, the formula that was used in many of the films that followed. It even resembles the story of Secretariat — girl (played here by Loretta Young) returns home to save the family farm and wins the Kentucky Derby. Centered around a longstanding family feud, the opening scenes during the Civil War are gut-wrenching. But that is followed by magnificent color footage of greats such as Man o’War, Gallant Fox, Fair Play and other top stallions at stud that look as if they were shot today. It brought those horses to life. One of the great racing characters of any racing film was portrayed by Walter Brennan, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as a crotchety old hardboot, even though, in reality, he was only in his 30s. One of the classic scenes was when the manager of the rival farm was trying to hide their top prospect from Brennan, who was there to collect on a wager, in which he could pick out any 2-year-old he wanted. We see a black groom dancing down the shed row singing, “Postman worked in :48, goin’ to the races, goin’ to the races.” Brennan dancing alongside him, goes, “Where’s he at? Where’s he at?” And the groom sings back, “Over in the tack shed, over in the tack shed.” You’ll have to get past the black stereotypes and the equine star Bluegrass’ improbable and implausible path to the Derby, but have to remember the film was made in 1938 when the entertainment value usually overshadowed reality and political correctness. All in all, this was great fun and includes footage of Lawrin winning the Kentucky Derby, which was Eddie Arcaro’s first Derby winner.

IT AIN’T HAY – You can purchase this with one of Abbott and Costello collection packages. It is without a doubt the funniest racing movie ever made, starring Bud and Lou, who unleash a barrage of racing bits that are hysterical, especially one that takes place in a betting parlor that is a classic. I won’t ruin it for you. The movie has an assortment of characters, including several Damon Runyon characters (it was based on a Damon Runyon story), and shows you brief scenes of old Saratoga in front of the majestic Grand Union Hotel and has a star racehorse named Teabiscuit. It also has a botched horsenapping due to mistaken identity, as Abbott and Costello steal Teabiscuit by mistake, and even throws in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s just crazy fun, with a feel of Saratoga and Runyonesque characters, and with a gripping emotional scene that really tugs at the heartstrings and ignites the main plot of the film. I never get tired of watching this movie, as it makes me laugh every time.

CASEY’S SHADOW – I’m venturing away from Thoroughbred racing to include this well-made film that takes place in the world of Quarter-Horse racing. It stars Walter Matthau and is loosely based on the Romero brothers (Randy and Gerald). It is an extremely realistic look at the Quarter-Horse world, well acted, and beautifully photographed, especially the sequences of Casey’s Shadow growing from foal to full-grown racehorse that can easily induce goosebumps. The plot got a little too formulated in the second half of the film, with the obligatory gangsters. But all in all it was a wonderfully made and highly entertaining movie.

NATIONAL VELVET – This is the movie that has created more female horse lovers than any in history. It is the story, beautifully told and photographed, of a 14-year-old horse-crazy Velvet Brown, who falls in love with a wild horse named The Pie, and winds up substituting for his regular jockey and riding him to victory in the Grand National, only to be disqualified. But that doesn’t matter. This film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, is the standard by which all movies and books about young girls who love horses is measured. So many young girls have aspired to be jockeys after having watched this film. Yes it is a typical Hollywood plot for its time, but who cares. As mentioned it earlier, it hits you on an emotional level, and is well-written, well-acted, and beautifully photographed.

GLORY – Don’t confuse this 1956 film with the more modern Civil War film. The plot is totally far-fetched about a filly who was born during an electrical storm and somehow makes it to the Kentucky Derby off one six-furlong claiming race. But the reasons to watch it include the excellent acting and biting dialogue between Walter Brennan and Charlotte Greenwood and the film footage of Swaps defeating Nashua in the Derby. It portrays racing in general in an intelligent way, but you just have look past the crazy plot.

HORSE BIOGRAPHY:

PHAR LAP – Although I haven’t seen it in ages, having taped it on VHS, which is long gone, it is simply the most faithful biography of a racehorse of all time; beautifully told and beautifully filmed, and extremely well acted. To add to the realism, the horse who played Phar Lap was the splitting image of the legendary Australian champion. The film even used actual newspaper pages reporting his controversial death in California. It is visually stunning, portrays no stereotypes, and is not afraid to expose the human frailties of its main characters. The only noticeable flaw is the film’s insinuation that Phar Lap was killed by mobsters, while failing to offer the alternative possibility that he was accidentally poisoned by ingesting pesticides sprayed on a field where he was grazing. But if you love horses and racing, this is a must see.

CHAMPIONS – Jockey battles back from cancer and is reunited with his horse, who has simultaneously returned from a serious career-threatening injury, and the pair team up to win the Grand National Steeplechase. Had the story of Bob Champion and Aldaniti not been true, it would have been considered too unrealistic and too Hollywood. But it was true, and what separated Champions from other equine biographies was Aldaniti playing himself. That was a stroke of genius and you kept thinking of that as you watched him re-enact the events of his life. Many objected to the depiction of Champion’s battle with cancer in agonizing detail, taking up a great deal of the film, and while it was tough getting through it, its candor only helped to enhance the story’s emotional, fairy tale ending. And the filming of the Grand National was nothing short of spectacular.

DREAM HORSE – Made in 2020 it is to me the best racing film made in several decades and shows that you can still make a great one without any noticeable deviation from the facts. It depicts the people and the place as well as any racing film and having established actors such as Toni Collette and Damian Lewis who fit right in with a collection of actors makes it look as if they were taken right out of the small Welsh town where the story takes place.

This is an inspiring story of Dream Alliance and bartender Janet Vokes (Collette), who became interested in bloodlines and decided to buy a potential broodmare named Rewbell, who had been injured on a barbed wire fence and had a bad disposition, for 350 pounds. When she produced a colt by American-bred stallion Bien Bien in partnership with a racing breeder from the town, Collette sets off on her quest to have the townsfolk chip in their meager earnings to help raise the colt. With opposition from many of the spouses she succeeds to get 23 people who put up 10 pounds a week to help raise the colt and pay his training bills. Bottom line is that Dream Alliance suffers a serious tendon injury that required stem cell treatment, which was new at the time. He recovers and goes on to win the Welsh Grand National. This is a heartwarming, well acted, and magnificently filmed move that is a must for all racing fans.

SEABISCUIT – This was a relatively high-budget film that was very well made and filmed in dramatic fashion, from the bush track match races to the match race with War Admiral. The movie focused quite a bit on the back stories of the humans behind the horse and the struggles during the Depression. But as a pure horse racing movie and biography it took a very long time before Seabiscuit was even introduced. And to make up for lost time, they turned him into a national celebrity after only a few victories in lesser stakes, and then embellished the David vs. Goliath theme by making War Admiral some 18-hands behemoth (which was a joke) when he was actually the same size as the much smaller Seabiscuit who measured 15.2 hands. They did a super job filming the match race, Gary Stevens was excellent, and all in all it was a good movie, even if it did take forever to get to Seabiscuit. I probably would have ranked this movie higher if I had never read Laura Hillenbrand’s epic biography. In the book, the backdrop was an integral part of the story, but it is difficult to condense everything in the book into a two hour and 20-minute film. I watched it recently and it still seemed long and drawn out. Then it appeared to rush through the second half of the movie. There are gorgeous scenes filmed at picturesque Xalapa Farm in Paris, Kentucky. If you haven’t see it it still makes for an excellent gift.

SECRETARIAT — As many major faults as this movie has, I am going to give it somewhat of a pass because of how much the budget was cut by Disney. And they made it way too Disneyesque, with odd location choices and several nonsensical scenes. But I did like the beginning when Penny Tweedy is called from her home in Colorado to come back to Virginia and help save the farm. The problem with making a movie about a horse that looked like Secretariat is that you can never find a horse physically worthy of portraying him and depicting the incredible larger than life aura he had. The same went for the very disappointing RUFFIAN (No one disliked this movie more than her trainer Frank Whiteley). Neither of these films came close to doing justice to the actual horse. But at least with Secretariat it brought Big Red to the big screen and stayed loyal to the legend, which is why a lot of young people enjoyed it, even if it only gave them a hint of what they missed. The film also seemed miscast in places. Diane Lane as Penny was believable, however John Malkovich was laughable as Lucien Laurin, and Pancho Martin was unfairly portrayed as the film’s primary villain. If you’re young and have no recollection of Secretariat and can ignore the fabricated, fictional scenes you will likely enjoy it for providing a look at an equine superhero that previously existed mainly on video and YouTube, and to younger fans in their imagination. For racing aficionados who saw the movie and lived through Big Red’s reign, you just have to put the scalpel away and resist the temptation to dissect it.

THE STORY OF SEABISCUIT – Not to be confused with Seabiscuit, this purely fictionalized biography stars Shirley Temple and an excellent Barry Fitzgerald, and is actually pretty entertaining for what it is. Just don’t believe that this is in any way the story of Seabiscuit. But if you want to see great actual film footage of the Seabiscuit — War Admiral match race, you definitely want to see this movie.

BLACK GOLD – One of the great stories of the Turf, this movie, starring Anthony Quinn, takes a lot of liberties and greatly embellishes the story of Rosa Hoots and the improbable Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold, but it’s still a fun movie. 

MOVIES ABOUT BETTING:

LET IT RIDE – There are a number of movies that feature scenes of betting horses, some with small racing plots, but it is not at all what the movie is about. When it comes to betting on horses one movie stands alone. People either loved or hated this film about a degenerate gambler, brilliantly played by Richard Dreyfuss, who normally is your typical loser, but has the one day every horseplayer fantasizes about. It is a never-ending day, shot at Hialeah Racetrack, in which Dreyfuss leaves the track several times to go to the bar across the street to hang out with his cronies or goes home to his frantic wife, who has had it with his gambling…and losing. But no matter what he does, he can’t lose. And it all starts with an insider’s tip overheard by Dreyfuss’ dim-witted friend in his taxi cab that has nefarious implications. But for Dreyfuss it is the one big break he has been dreaming about. That sets off one incredibly and surreal day at the track. The people who disliked the movie and found it far-fetched don’t see it for what it is – the fantasy of every horseplayer. If you look at it as pure fantasy you’re more likely to enjoy it. It captures the frenzy of the racetrack and every type of crazed horseplayer imaginable. There is an overhead scene with Dreyfuss in the bar’s rest room stall realizing he doesn’t belong with his clique of “losers” and appears to be pleading his case to God that is hysterical.

GRITTY MOVIES:

BOOTS MALONE – This 1952 film starring William Holden pulls no punches and depicts life on the backstretch with stark realism. It is as well acted and as well written as any racing movie, and has an excellent and thought-provoking plot that moves along at a swift pace and takes you to places most people have never been to, focusing on a young jockey and his down-on-his-luck agent. Holden is terrific as usual, going from successful agent, living high in the fanciest hotels, to living in a tack room and trying to scrape up a few dollars after his star jockey is killed. He gets enough to buy a cheap horse and then discovers a green aspiring young rider who has run away from his rich family. This is unlike any racing movie in that it does not glorify the sport and is not afraid to show you its underbelly.

THE KILLING – One of Stanley Kubrick’s early films that is as close as you’ll get to racing film noir. It is filmed almost like a stage play, with surreal backdrops, and is not for the faint of heart, as it is pretty violent at times, especially the end, with the plot focusing about the attempt of a bunch of hoods to make a killing at the track…literally, by shooting the favorite during the race and disguising the crime so that no one knows just what happened. It is like watching the proverbial train wreck – disturbing, but you can’t take your eyes off it, either despite of or because of the simplicity in the way it is filmed. And what better actor to star in a ‘50s film noir movie than Sterling Hayden, who plays his part to perfection.

THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER – Not a true racing movie, but one of the really great films and with an unusual storyline, about a young boy in England who rides his rocking horse frantically, and the faster he goes he reaches a point where he has seems to escape the real world and can predict the winners at the track. There is a lot more to this innovative plot. It has superb acting and is extremely thought provoking. Not an easy film to find.

JOCKEYThis is the most recent racing movie about an aging jockey looking for his one big break to ride a top-class horse, and is as realistic as you can get. It is more of a cerebral movie with actually no real racing scenes, and it doesn’t try to tug at your heartstrings. What makes this movie work so well is the brilliant, but low-keyed acting of Clifton Collins Jr., who as his bio says, “Was born short, lean, and mean on June 16, 1970.” And that is exactly the character he plays to perfection. It’s still around on TV and worth looking for.

OTHERS TO REMEMBER IN CASE YOU COME ACROSS THEM:

THE BLACK STALLION – This isn’t categorized because it isn’t a horse racing film in the true sense. It is more about a horse and a boy and a desert island, with the last part of the movie focusing on a horse race. If you do consider it a horse racing movie, then it definitely belongs under entertaining, as it is absolutely stunning, with another excellent performance by Mickey Rooney and a spectacularly filmed horse race. The scenes on the desert island of this magnificent black horse and the stranded boy slowly interacting are truly brilliant, and you won’t find more beautifully filmed scenes than the ones of “The Black” running through the water.

PRIDE OF THE BLUEGRASS – This is an outlandish plot that is actually based to some extent on a true story, just don’t ask me how much, because I laughed at this movie when I saw it. It starts with a mare giving birth to a colt. The barn is struck by lightning, killing her owner, but his seventeen-year-old son escapes with the colt, named Gantry the Great. A young girl gets the boy a job on the horse farm owned by her father. The boy, Danny, trains and rides Gantry, who becomes a good horse, but after being abused by his regular trainer he goes blind in the Kentucky Derby, as the favorite, and is pulled up by Danny. No one knows he went blind so Danny is banned for a year and Gantry is to be destroyed. But instead Danny trains him to jump and enters the blind horse in Grand National Steeplechase in England. Before you start laughing just know that in the description of the movie, Gantry the Great, whose actual name was Elmer Gantry, is played by the real Elmer Gantry. I won’t tell you if he wins the Grand National.

RIDING HIGH – This was an excellent vehicle for racing lover Bing Crosby, and the end of the movie will tear your heart out. But this film was a remake of the 1934 movie titled Broadway Bill. Frank Capra was so dissatisfied with the original he remade it in 1950 with plenty of songs. The only problem was that for some reason Capra left in a number of scenes from the original movie, and it was so obvious these scenes were from an older movie with different actors.

SPORTING BLOOD – This is a real oldie made in 1931 starring a young Clark Gable. Not only is it very well made, with an interesting plot, it contains the most remarkable footage ever shot at the Kentucky Derby, in this case the 1930 running, with the movie interacting with the footage. You have to see it to believe it. It occasionally pops up on Turner Classic Movies.

A DAY AT THE RACES – Typical Marx Bothers wackiness that wasn’t that much about racing. But there was a classic line when Groucho, playing a horse doctor, was treating a horse in his office and gave him a bottle of pills and told him, “Take two every half mile.”

DOWN THE STRETCH – Mickey Rooney is terrific playing a jockey with an attitude named Snapper Sinclair. It is a pretty interesting plot with your typical race fixing, but with loyalty, good conscience, and clearing your father’s name added to the mix.

SARATOGA – This was a pretty high-profile movie in 1937 starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlowe and Lionel Barrymore. It is a witty and intelligent movie, more about betting and high rollers, with Gable playing a bookie. I remember finding it quite enjoyable. 

THE STING – Although this is not a racing movie, it has a great racing flavor when the action takes place at a makeshift bookie parlor, and they even mention Mo Annenberg, who invented the wire and owned the Morning Telegraph. The greatest movie tip of all time — “Place it on Lucky Dan.” Even if it’s not a racing movie, it is one of the great movies of all time and definitely worth watching more than once. 

THE LEMON DROP KID – This is another Damon Runyon story about a racetrack tout, played by Bob Hope. Again, there isn’t a lot of racing in it, but it did become famous for introducing the classic Christmas song Silver Bells.

MY OLD MAN – Adapted from an Ernest Hemingway short story, this was a pretty decent made-for-TV film with an excellent performance by Warren Oates.

DREAMER – Many people liked this film, but I had a major problem with Dakota Fanning, who I found annoying enough to not enjoy it. So I can’t judge this film fairly.

THE HOMESTRETCH – This little known film starring Maureen O’Hara and Cornell Wilde is pretty entertaining, taking you from Argentina to Saratoga to Churchill Downs, and has a solid enough plot. It’s not your standard fare and well worth looking for, if it even exists anymore.

WALL OF NOISE – Even lesser known than The Homestretch, I did enjoy it. Starring Suzanne Pleshette and TV star Ty Hardin, it is far from a classic, but Hardin is excellent and has flaws in his character, which you don’t see too often from the star of the movie.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to Secretariat.com since 2020.


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146 Responses to “Horse Racing Movies for the Holidays”

  1. Cathy Rosenberger says:

    In Maryland I worked with outrider Phil Miller. He told us stories of being riding double in the jump scenes for Elizabeth Taylor
    Movie people came to Pimlico to do race scenes for Tin Men. Paid $100 a day to ride a pretend race like a million times. This went on for 5 days. We all went to the movie to see the race part. Cut down to like 30 seconds
    Thanks for all these great suggestions. Making a list to keep

  2. bill harman says:

    ….Pie was the horse’s name who played in National Velvet. Grandson of the GREAT MAN O’ WAR~
    As usual Steve, very well written article and reviews.

  3. KG says:

    First time commenting on any of your articles, Steve, though I’ve been reading your work for a few years now. I enjoyed this list–I hadn’t heard of most of them. I was in elementary school when the Secretariat movie was released, so I grew up adoring that. Wasn’t until I read Bill Nack’s book that I realized the liberties they took in some areas. I still like it for the nostalgia, though. I’d be interested in what you recommend for racing books.