Movies to get you in the mood to watch the Kentucky Derby

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

There’s an old saying in horse racing: breed the best to the best and hope for the best.

You could say the same about movies.  Which means it goes double for movies about horse racing.

The first Saturday in May is upon us and that means one thing.

Time to run for the roses.

It’s surprising, actually, how few movies are about Kentucky Derby. Yes, “Secretariat,” is but that was also about the Triple Crown and a woman’s tenacity (Diane Lane as Penny Tweedy) in a traditionally male game.

The best horse race ever put on film, of course, is the celebrated chariot race in “Ben Hur.” Eleven minutes of sheer cinematic genius, the race was staged by veteran stuntman, Yakima Canutt, who pulled off the unforgettable under-the-running-horses stunt in the original “Stagecoach.”

Stars Charleton Heston and Stephen Boyd also did most of their own driving. When Heston worried if he was good enough, Canutt told him, “Don’t worry, Chuck. You’re going to win the race, I promise.

Here are some of my favorites. Odds are, you’ll like ‘em, too.

SEABISCUIT

Laura Hillenbrand’s thrillingly goof bestseller has been turned into a graceful, intelligent and heartfelt film. This is not just another maverick-stallion-wins-big-race saga.

In fact, Seabiscuit doesn’t even show up until 45 minutes into the movie. Just as important — perhaps more — are the men behind the horse. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), the taciturn trainer; Red Pollard (Toby Maguire) the too-tall jockey who quotes Shakespeare, and Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), the ebullient millionaire who purchased Seabiscuit for a bargain-basement $2,000.

The colt soon rockets from worst to first and, in doing so, becomes a symbol of the pluck and luck that not only wins races, but beats back the Great Depression.

THE STORY OF SEABISCUIT

A reminder that once upon a time 1) most movies were in black and white and 2) lightning-fast nags once were as famous as any pro-athlete (and none were ever tried for rape or murder).

Barry Fitzgerald is the horse’s very Irish trainer and Shirley Temple (making the transition from child stat to love interest) provides the name above the title.

In her autobiography, she sums the entire enterprise up as “a movie for anyone wanting to know all about Seabiscuit.”

A DAY AT THE RACES

The Marx Brothers do for the backstretch what they did for arias in “A Night at the Opera.” Allan Jones, left over from”Opera” plays a horse owner who dreams of winning the Big Race.

Maureen O’Sullivan (Mia’s Mom and Tarzan’s Mate) is his dream girl. Harpo is a jockey. Chico is a tout, selling tips under the code words, “Get you Tutsi Frutsi ice cream!” And Groucho is a bogus vet who woos wealthy Margaret Dumont by promising, “Marry me and I’ll never look at another horse.”

DREAMER

The movie is based (more or less) on the true story of a filly who breaks her leg in a race and is nursed back to health by a determined Dakota Fanning.

Though generally a pretty formulaic film, the cast — along with Fanning, there’s Kurt Russell, Elisabeth Shue and Kris Kristofferson — puts it over with conviction and guts.

And Fanning, well, she’s good enough to have coached me to a gold in the hundred meters. And I can barely keep my head above water. An excellent choice for the whole family.

NATIONAL VELVET

Never mind “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” this is the best movie Elizabeth Taylor ever made. She thought so, too.

She plays 11-year-old Velvet Brown who dreams of winning the Grand National Steeplechase with her horse, “The Pie.”

Mickey Rooney, who knew his way around the Hollywood backstretch better than anyone, is her trainer. One small problem: The National is a Boy’s Club.

Thinking back, it’s hard to say which is more striking: Taylor’s violet eyes or the emerald green countryside. Another sensational family choice. Plus, it’s a true classic.

THE BLACK STALLION

Perhaps the most beautiful and mystical horse movie ever made. A boy (Kelly Reno) and a wild black stallion (Cass Ole) are stranded on a desert island — and we are treated to almost 40 wordless minutes of absolute bliss (thank you director Carroll Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deshanel, yes, Zooey’s dad.).

Mickey Rooney nabbed an Oscar nomination for his role as a cantankerous trainer.

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4 comments
MikeKing1
MikeKing1

Eleanor, as usual a great list. Thanks for posting. I had high hopes for the Secretariat movie, given its pedigree, but was ultimately very disappointed. Not sure whether it was the Disney crew or just no-need for detail screenwriting, but to completely ignore the fact that Penny Tweedy and her stable and trainer had a great horse, Riva Ridge, the year before Big Red, was inexcusable. Riva Ridge got the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1972 and made Tweedy and Lucien Lauren superstars going into Secretariat's history-making 1973 campaign. They could have captured that without taking away anything from that glorious year Iin thoroughbred racing. For my money, Seabiscuit is one of the best screenplays from original book ever written (up there with Horron Foote's To Kill a Mockingbird ans Phillip Kaufman's The Right Stuff.) With great actors, great cinematography and a stellar screenplay it is the best horse movie ever. Glad to see the Black Stallion on your list too. Visually one of the most stunning films of all time and a work of art in capturing the movement of the horse. And of course, Horsefeathers -- the Brothers at their best. Thanks again for getting me psyched for Derby weekend.

TulsaDave
TulsaDave

Let It Ride has to be on that list!