Monday, May 1, 2017

Classic Movies About Horse Racing and Equitation

Mickey Rooney in National Velvet.
With the Kentucky Derby just around the corner, we thought it was a perfect time to reprint this entry on classic horse racing movies from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series (reprinted with the authors' permission). Since we're talking "classic" movies, don't expect to see a film released later than the 1980s in the list (sorry, Seabiscuit!).

Mickey Rooney is the undisputed champ of horse racing sagas with a track career spanning half a century. He played the son of a disgraced jockey in Down the Stretch (1936), Wallace Beery’s jockey protegé in Stablemates (1938), a young jockey involved with crooks (and teamed with Judy Garland for the first time) in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), Elizabeth Taylor’s young mentor in National Velvet (1944), the trainer of The Black Stallion (1979), and a horse owner in Lightning, the White Stallion (1986). 

Surprisingly, Rooney never made a race track comedy. However, horse racing hijinks seem to be a requirement for most comedians. The Marx Brothers produced the most memorable, 1937’s A Day at the Races, which featured Groucho at his best as horse doctor Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Abbott and Costello raced a steed named Tea Biscuit in It Ain’t Hay (1943). It was called Money for Jam in Great Britain, which one shouldn’t confuse with Money from Home (1953), another stateside horse race comedy with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. 


Donald O'Connor with Francis.
Hope and Crosby never raced horses in the Road movies, but Bob gambled on them in Sorrowful Jones (1949) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), while Bing backed one in Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950). Donald O’Connor and his talking mule sidekick Francis could have made a fortune in Francis Goes to the Races (1951), since the race horses told Francis that they always determined the winner before the race even began. 

A little boy’s ability to predict horse race results with amazing accuracy ended in tragedy in The Rocking Horse Winner, a 1949 adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence short story. 


Phar Lap with Tom Burlinson.
Filmmakers have deemed few real-life horse racing champions worthy of film biographies. The exceptions include a pair of exceptional horses in The Story of Seabiscuit (1949), The Great Dan Patch (1949), and Phar Lap (1983), the latter being Australia’s most famous racing champ. 

Although most horse races are of the thoroughbred variety, a handful have explored other horse racing events: Elizabeth Taylor entered “The Pie” in the Grand National Steeplechase in National Velvet; father and daughter Charles Coburn and Peggy Cummins raced trotting horses in The Green Grass of Wyoming (1948); Tatum O’Neal and Melissa Gilbert set their sights on equestrian championships in, respectively, International Velvet (1978) and Sylvester (1985); and Gene Hackman and James Coburn were two of the riders in the grueling cross-country horse race in Bite the Bullet (1975). 

Non-horse racing films with memorable sequences include My Fair Lady (1964) and the carousel horse race in Mary Poppins (1964). Film critics have pondered for years whether the title of Million Dollar Legs (1939) refers to the film’s race horse or its star Betty Grable. 

Sporting Blood (1931)
Broadway Bill (aka Strictly Confidential) (1934) 
Little Miss Marker (aka The Girl in Pawn) (1934) 
Down the Stretch (1936) 
Three Men on a Horse (1936) 
Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936) 
A Day at the Races (1937) 
Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937) 
Racing Lady (1937) 
Saratoga (1937) 
Sing You Sinners (1938) 
Stablemates (1938) 
Come on George (1939) 
Million Dollar Legs (1939) 
The Lady’s from Kentucky (1939) 
It Ain’t Hay (aka Money for Jam(1943) 
National Velvet (1944) 
Home in Indiana (1944) 
The Great Mike (1944) 
She Went to the Races (1945) 
My Brother Talks to Horses (1946) 
The Homestretch (1947) 
Black Gold (1947) 
The Green Grass of Wyoming (1948) 
The Story of Seabiscuit (aka Pride of Kentucky) (1949) 
The Great Dan Patch (1949) 
Sorrowful Jones (1949) 
Under My Skin (1949) 
The Rocking Horse Winner (1949) 
Boy from Indiana (1950) 
The Pride of Maryland (1950) 
Blue Grass of Kentucky (1950) 
Riding High (1950) 
Francis Goes to the Races (1951) 
Blue Blood (1951) 
The Galloping Major (1951) 
The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) 
The Rainbow Jacket (1951) 
Boots Malone (1952) 
Four Against Fate (aka Derby Day(1952) 
A Girl in Every Port (1952) 
Money from Home (1953) 
Fast Company (1953) 
Pride of the Blue Grass (1954) 
The Fighting Chance (1955) 
Dry Rot (1956) 
Glory (1956) 
The Killing (1956) 
Photo Finish (1957) 
Just My Luck (1957) 
The Sad Horse (1959) 
Mary Poppins (1964) 
My Fair Lady (1964) 
The Reivers (aka The Yellow Winton Flyer) (1969) 
Bite the Bullet (1975) 
International Velvet (1978) 
Casey’s Shadow (1978) 
Run for the Roses (aka Thoroughbred) (1978) 
My Old Man (1979 TVM) 
The Black Stallion (1979) 
Little Miss Marker (1980) 
On the Right Track (1981) 
Phar Lap (1983) 
Sylvester (1985) 
The Longshot (1986) 
Lightning, the White Stallion (1986) 
Hot to Trot (1988) 
Let It Ride (1989)

7 comments:

  1. Fun and interesting article. My son is crazy about Rooney in both National Velvet and The Black Stallion.

    I've never been to the track, but love the excitement that filmmakers put into that setting. On the list there are three movies I have written about, plus one upcoming. I'm feeling "in the know" right now.

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  2. As a big fan of thoroughbred racing and the movies, I've seen most of the movies on this list. I always thought a good example of a movie that showed what life at the track was like is Boots Malone. Highly recommended.

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  3. Whoa! That's a big list of racing movies! I had no idea.

    Like you, I'm surprised Mickey Rooney never did a racetrack comedy. That would have been brilliant!

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  4. For horsey biographies, there's "Secretariat" (2010). I actually watched it for Diane Lane.

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  5. The authors' book was last published in 2000. Otherwise, I'm sure the list would be longer.

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  6. Wow! An impressive list. I will definitely be watching some of these this week. It's nice to see Derby Day up there with the others, that's a good film. Another British one worth adding: Devil on Horseback ( 1954 ) with Googie Withers.

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