A Celebration of the Forgotten Art of Horse-racing Films

The thrills and spills of horse-racing has kept spectators on the edge of their seats for centuries. The origins of this traditional sport can be traced back as far as Roman times, whilst the first officiated horse-racing organisation was established as long ago as 1750. Therefore it a testament to this longstanding sport that it continues to entertain and enamour spectators into the 21st century. An example of this consistent popularity is that tips for the 2015 Cheltenham festival, a major event on the horse-racing calendar, are already being desperately sought after by fans despite it not being held till March.

Until the end of the 20th century, horse-racing’s popularity as a spectator sport was equalled by its presence on the big-screen, as the topic of numerous Hollywood movies. These films, that often adapted the real-life stories of successful race-horses, won numerous Academic Awards whilst collecting huge box-office returns and glowing critical reviews. However, in recent years, the topic of horse-racing has somewhat gone out of mode within Hollywood. Whilst the most contemporary example, Seabiscuit, made a substantial profit and was nominated for several major awards in 2003, since then no-other mainstream film has been made concerning horse-racing. Therefore, to both celebrate the Cheltenham festival’s continued presence on the sporting calendar, and as a reminder to those who feel horse-racing is no-longer a subject worthy of the silver-screen, here are a few of the best horse-racing movies of all time.

National Velvet (1944)

Whilst this 1944 adaptation of Enid Bagnold’s novel will always be remembered as the motion-picture that introduced the world to superstar Elizabeth Taylor, it is still a fantastic film even without Taylor’s then untainted and mesmerizing screen presence. Clarence Browns’ film, which won two academy awards, is a surprisingly forward-thinking tale of female equality and personal integrity. Taylor stars as the resourceful but naïve Velvet Brown, a young girl who wins a spirited gelding at her local raffle and decides to train him to race in the Grand National. Velvet ropes in  charismatic drifter Mi, a striking Mickey Rooney, to assist her in training the horse. Taylor portrays Violet with the perfect mix of child-like idealism and ageless integrity, whilst Rooney deftly neutralises the rough-edges of his character with sincerity and charm. The pair share an excellent on-screen chemistry and the slowly evolving dynamic between them allows the film to elegantly stake-over some potentially problematic pacing issues.

Phar Lap (1983)

Phar Lap, which was written by Australian playwright David Williamson, is a much moodier and melancholic piece than National Velvet. The film, which stars Tom Burlinson, is an unflinching look at the darker underbelly of the horse-racing world. Simon Wincer’s movie is one that depicts  impulsiveness, intoxication and the perils of fame and money. Phar Lap chronicles the rise and fall of the race-horse of the film’s name, a prized winner in his home-country Phar Lap is moved to America to capitalise on his form but is soon debilitated by inept trainers and underhand dealings. Whilst the film grossed an impressive $9 million dollars in Australia, American audiences were not impressed by the unpleasant subject-matter and bleak ending. This means that Phar Lap has been largely forgotten except amongst hardcore cinema and horse-racing fans.

Let It Ride (1989)

This little-known 1989 almost-black comedy is a forgotten gem for those who like their humour undercut with something a little sharper. Richard Dreyfuss plays Jay Trotte, a borderline gambling addict, who decides to have one last blow-out when he begins an untouchable streak of winning, despite promising his long-suffering wife he would stop to save their marriage. Dreyfuss injects enough humanity into his unpleasant character to keep the audience somewhat on his side, mainly due to him giving the role a nice undercurrent of pathos. Proceedings are largely depicted within a light-hearted context but the film isn’t afraid to occasionally throw a shadow or two over-proceedings. Whilst the film’s occasional forays into semi-philosophical musings surrounding the nature of luck often misfire, the premise is a neat one and is executed well.

Helen Duff

Helen Duff ()

Can often be found drinking coffee, watching anime, complaining and writing about cosmetics and candy.