Mon, May 20, 2024

And we’re off to the racing movies!

“If you ain’t been throwed, you ain’t rode,” John Steinbeck told the young playwright, Terrence McNally, the latter downtrodden after an unsuccessful staging of his first play. The language of horse-riding and racing seems embedded in the verbiage of American daily life; “get off your high horse,” “across the board,” “jockeying for position,” and “Dark Horse.”

This Saturday, the poetry of racing will echo throughout South Louisville and into Churchill Downs for the 150th time: The Kentucky Derby will begin.

In between reading the odds and betting guides, looking ahead to the chic fashions of the racegoers, or finding the perfect Mint Julip recipe, here are four movies to commemorate the event that illustrate the drama and easy speed within the art of horseracing.

National Velvet (1944)

This classic, set in small-town England, tells the story of Velvet Brown, played by a young Elizabeth Taylor, who wins a young gelding in a raffle. She names the gelding “The Pie” and wants to train him for the Grand National steeplechase, with the help of a bitter but loveable young ex-jockey named Mi (played by Mickey Rooney), who has a hidden connection to the Brown family by way of his recently deceased father. Fearing the challenge of the National while reeling from his scarred past as a racer, Mi is trepidatious to help Velvet train the horse, but gradually realizes that the young girl’s dream cannot be reined.

The film is a heartwarming tale of young courage and persistence that, on top of galloping straight into the hearts of millions of moviegoers, introduced us to Liz Taylor. What’s not to love?

National Velvet is available for streaming on Tubi free of charge.

Seabiscuit (2003)

The fanfare surrounding the iconic Seabiscuit was a few jolts of spirit (as it were) in Depression-era America, and this rightful underdog story shows us why.

Jeff Bridges stars as auto dealer, Charles Howard, who mourns the death of his son and sees horse racing as a new lease on life. With the help of Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), Howard seeks to build a champion out of the short-fused and undersized thoroughbred Seabiscuit. Deemed crazy by nearly every observer, the trio channels fortitude and frustration in competing doses to make the horse a winner, all with the backdrop of a crumbling America.

It is a delicate, somewhat intense drama with premiere acting that shows the trials and tribulations of the racket on and off the track. The film was nominated for six Oscars in 2004, losing in each category to Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Seabiscuit is available for streaming on PlutoTV for free or for rent on Amazon Prime for $0.99.

Hidalgo (2004)

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you can beat ‘em, join ‘em anyway; after taking the Best Picture prize from Seabiscuit, Lord of the Rings’ own Viggo Mortensen got in the saddle later that year in this biopic about the legendary rider, Frank Hopkins and his titular Mustang.

Hopkins is an American ex-Cavalry dispatch rider who is haunted by his role in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Performing in Buffalo Bill’s traveling Wild West Show as the “greatest rider in the West,” Hopkins garners the attention of a Sheikh, Riyahd (Omar Sharif), who beckons him to partake in the “Ocean of Fire,” a race spanning 3,000 miles in the Arabian Desert against some of the most prestigious native horses. It is the first time a foreigner (and a foreign horse) would race in the oft-fatal contest. Along the way, he faces contempt from the Arabian people, who label him an infidel, but finds an embrace from the Sheikh’s daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson).

The film sees a galvanizing event of clashing cultures and painstaking endurance, particularly in its sandstorm scenes, in which Mortensen’s portrayal of Hopkins puts the ‘ride’ in pride.

Hidalgo is available for rent on Amazon Prime starting from $3.79.

Secretariat (2010)

This iconic Disney flick not only illustrates the story of Secretariat, the greatest thoroughbred in all the world, but foists Diane Lane’s Penny Chenery into the male-dominated world of horseracing.

Chenery is a housewife from Denver who returns to her Virginia home following her mother’s death and is left to operate on her sick father’s stables. After losing a bet that leaves her with a foal Secretariat, she is determined to make the stables profitable once again. She has virtually no knowledge of racing, but with the help of the seasoned trainer Lucien Lauren (played by John Malkovich), Secretariat becomes a star, galloping his way to the 1973 Kentucky Derby.

Secretariat is a delight, with an edge-of-your-seat racing scene backed with Disney-infused whimsy that keeps the story simple and inspiring.

Secretariat is available on Disney+ through subscription.

The Kentucky Derby coverage on WRDW 12 26 begins at 2:30 pm on Saturday, May 4, with post time at 6:57 pm. It’s billed as the greatest 2 minutes in sports.

Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.

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