It’s the pinnacle of horse racing season in the United States: the Triple Crown, consisting of three races in five weeks: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.
And that makes it as good a time as any to reveal the best films centered on the "Sport of Kings."
Even before "talkies" reached the silver screen, Hollywood gave us films about horse racing, including "A Gamble for Love" in 1917 and "A Dead Certainty" in 1920.
We put together our 10 favorite films that feature horse racing, and added a bonus at the end. Some are works of fiction, but many are based on actual events. Enjoy the films as you enjoy the excitement of the Triple Crown!
In this one, Kurt Russell portrays a horse trainer who adopts a horse that sustained a broken leg after his client raced him against the trainer’s advice. He and his precocious daughter, Cale (Dakota Fanning) nurse and train Soñador to race again, with the encouragement of his grumpy but kind-hearted Grandpa (Kris Kristofferson).
Said Desson Thomson, reviewing for The Washington Post, "For family audiences seeking easy assurance, moral certitude and, of course, moving scenes of a gorgeous, galloping horse."
This depicts the true story of a cowboy and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show performer Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) who is forced to accept the challenge of affluent Sheik Riyadh (Omar Sharif) to enter a treacherous 3,000-mile horse race across the Arabian Desert called the Ocean of Fire. It pits Hopkins and his American mustang Hidalgo, against thoroughbred horses ridden by the world’s best riders with his reputation and life at stake.
Said Felix Vasquez Jr., reviewing for Cinema Crazed "Whether or not the events depicted really happened to Hopkins, it's still a damn fun story."
An over-the-hill jockey, portrayed by Clifton Collins Jr., wants to win one last race for his female trainer, using what appears to be a championship horse. But years of abuse and injuries have taken their toll, questioning the jockey’s ability to continue.
Said Danny Leigh, reviewing for the Financial Times "What elevates it most is Collins, a familiar supporting actor with an air of Johnny Cash whose nuanced, soulful work as star makes the whole film ring true."
"Lean on Pete" (2018)
Charley is a teen living with his single father, who works as a stable boy caring for an aging racehorse named Lean on Pete. Charley discovers that the horse is scheduled to be put down, having outlived its usefulness. So he and Lean on Pete take off on a cross-country adventure looking for a new home.
Said Mark Kermode reviewing for The Guardian, “A performance of remarkable depth, candour and vulnerability by rising star Charlie Plummer lies at the heart of this terrifically moving fourth feature film from British writer-director Andrew Haigh.”
"Let it Ride" (1989)
In this comedy, a loser cab driver (Richard Dreyfuss) attempts to turn a $50 bet at the track into his grab at the brass ring, wholly on the basis of a tip he’d received from his best friend.
"Only in the movies can you come across selfish bastards that you actually like," wrote Scott Weinberg, for eFilmCritic.com. Of course it helps when your bastard is played by the likes of Richard Dreyfuss."
"National Velvet" (1944)
In this classic, 12-year-old horse-lover Velvet Brown (Elizabeth Taylor), living in rural Sussex, is given a rambunctious horse that she trains for England's Grand National race. Velvet is assisted in her goal by a former jockey (Mickey Rooney) and encouraged by her family, as she gets the horse ready for the big day.
"See this movie for little Elizabeth Taylor's precocious, bravura performance," wrote Mark Jackson for the Epoch Times. "Her face is alive with refreshing joy; her voice has the breathlessness of wanting to embrace the whole wondrous world, but having too little time."
"Phar Lap" (1983)
This one is “the story of a champion, who beat all odds, to become a legend.”
This is the true story of a New Zealand racehorse raised by an Australian trainer who, despite all odds, became an international legend with the love and assistance of a stable boy. When Phar Lap begins unexpectedly winning races, his trainer has to fend off pressure from other racers and gamblers who lost betting against Phar Lap.
Wrote Luke Buckmaster for The Guardian “The film is buoyed by good performances, strong production values and Williamson's writing, which finds a genuine but bittersweet way to commemorate one of Australian sport's best performing athletes.”
"Ride Like a Girl" (2019)
This is the true-life story of Michelle Payne, and her struggle in what has been called the most dangerous sport on Earth,” to become the first female jockey to win Melbourne Cup.
Best line in the movie: when she’s asked by a male jockey at the starting gate what her plans are after the race, she replies, “Celebrating.”
You can be totally ignorant of horse racing and still enjoy the film, according to Peter Bradshaw, who wrote in The Guardian, “The big-heartedness of this film won me over despite my utter ignorance of the racing world.”
Another true story, this one that took place during the Great Depression.
A quartet of unlikely misfits team up to inspire a nation at a time when it needed it the most. They include:
- A businessman (Jeff Bridges) dealing with the tragic death of his son
- A jockey with a history of brutal injuries (Tobey Maguire)
- A down-on-his-luck horse trainer (Chris Cooper)
- A temperamental, undersized racehorse named Seabiscuit
Despite all odds, Seabiscuit became a legend as one of the most celebrated race horses of all time.
Wrote Michael Clark for the Epoch Times, "Director Ross, his team of technicians, and performers (including 10 portraying the title character) made one of the greatest sports (and family friendly) films of all-time which will quite easily double for some as the light at the end of many tunnels."
Housewife and mother Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) takes over the management of the family thoroughbred farm after her father (Scott Glenn) becomes ill, in yet another true story. She wagers everything while making her own way through the male-dominated sport to adopt and race a gifted colt that became the 1973 Triple Crown winner.
"Secretariat had a highly charismatic, unique, and amusing personality, similar in many ways to one of his human contemporaries--Muhammad Ali. Both of them were the greatest of all time, and both of them knew it," said Mark Jackson for the Epoch Times. He concluded, "Loads of fun."
Bonus: "A Day at the Races" (1937)
Although panned by the critics, we believe it would be irresponsible to exclude this wacky Marx brothers classic.
In this one, Hugo Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) is a veterinarian who poses as a doctor at Standish Sanitarium. In order to save the financially strapped facility (not to mention its beautiful owner, Judy Standish, played by Maureen O'Sullivan), Hackenbush teams up with employee Tony (Chico Marx) and jockey Stuffy (Harpo Marx) help Gil Stewart (Allan Jones) and his inept, misfit racehorse, Hi-Hat, win the big race.
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