Talking Horses: why is it so hard to make a realistic horse racing movie?

Chris Cook
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Features</span>
Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Features

I love horse racing movies, or at least I love the fact that they are occasionally made. It’s so encouraging when Hollywood turns the full wattage of its attention on your little world; it justifies your enthusiasm and is one in the eye for all those baffled by it.

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The movies themselves have generally proved hard to love, for a variety of reasons (NB spoilers coming up soon). It’s notoriously hard to make a good sports movie and when your cast is half full of animals, your difficulties multiply. I imagine many a racing project has stalled in week one, one producer turning to another with the fateful words: “Why don’t we give Spiderman another reboot instead?”

One can hardly be proud of the great game as portrayed in Dead Cert, which reaches its climax when the villainous jockey is thrown from his horse during the Grand National and impaled on the spiked railings which, naturally, line the inside of the racecourse. And then celebrations continue in the winner’s enclosure and nobody says: “Wait a minute, didn’t one of the riders just die horribly?”

National Velvet is good fun. I’ve heard complaints about the race scenes but, considering they were shot in California, it seems to me a lot of effort went into recreating Aintree, with much success. I like the fact that the spectators have basically no idea of what’s happened to which horse, which was the true Grand National experience until the advent of big screens on the infield.

But it’s so irritating that Enid Bagnold has her heroine slide off the horse in a dead faint just after the winning post. What, so she can steer the beast over 30 fences but she can’t stay on it long enough to walk round the back of the grandstands? Pffft.

Seabiscuit is a fine movie adapted from a prize-winning bestseller and very enjoyable. But all pretence at gritty realism is cast aside in the portrayal of the final race, in which Gary Stevens reins back his horse to give the labouring Seabiscuit something to run with down the back stretch. Come on, man!

These thoughts are timely again because Dream Horse, based on the extraordinary story of Dream Alliance, has just had its premier at the Sundance Festival in the US, and a clip has been released online. It shows the heroic chestnut being obstreperous when asked to exercise and the trainer lashing out at his fretful owners: “With a bit of work, it’ll be worth giving him a crack at your local gymkhana.”

Ah well, I shall give it a chance to exceed my expectations. Who wouldn’t be thrilled by a jump racing movie with Toni Collette and Damian Lewis in leading roles? I’m a bit worried that, while Katherine Jenkins has been recruited to play herself, no racing people appear in the cast list. Would it have been too hard to use Tom O’Brien to play Tom O’Brien? Who looks more like a jockey than an actual jockey? We shall find out when the movie is released here in April, a fortnight after the National.

But surely it is past time for a racing movie with some closer connection to reality, in which the trainer is not some sneery toff who dismisses your horse as a waste of his time, but an eternal optimist trying to sustain your hope in the face of endless setbacks. We still await a montage of phone calls in which the trainer gently explains: “I’m afraid he’s got a leg / struck into himself / stone bruise / abscess / thrown a splint / bit of a cough / big, weak sort / we should put him away for a year...”

Meanwhile, the pages fall off a calendar in the background and a pile of bills accumulates. There’s your necessary hardship and adversity for the middle of the movie. Then the happy ending comes when it wins a seller at Catterick. Call me, scriptwriters!

Monday’s best bets

Hopefully, Sean Quinlan is ready for his close-up because McGowan’s Pass (3.15) should give him a fine chance in a handicap hurdle at Kelso. This nine-year-old has had his problems but he hacked up on his recent reappearance at Ayr and should still be well treated in this better race, for which he’s 3-1 because the market is obsessed with a Donald McCain runner.

In Plumpton’s closer, there’s been support for Hymn And A Prayer (4.00), still available at 15-2. He wasn’t far behind some of these on his reappearance last month and should be capable of better again on what is only his third try in a handicap.

Mount Wellington (6.30) is strong in the market at 9-4 for tonight’s card at Wolverhampton. He beat a subsequent winner here a fortnight ago and is once more heading the right way, having joined Stuart Williams.

In the opener, you might like to know that Percy Prosecco (4.30) is a first ride in public for Brodie Hampson since she got engaged to the horse’s trainer, Archie Watson. It would be going too far to suggest that a winner has been contrived as part of the celebrations, but the horse has a pretty obvious chance in any case.

Kelso 1.15 Tortuga Bay 1.45 Kalaharry 2.15 Manetti 2.45 Skyhill
3.15 McGowan’s Pass (nap) 3.45 Black Pirate 4.15 Master Malachy

Plumpton 1.30 Cap Du Mathan 2.00 Wenceslaus 2.30 Cat Tiger 3.00 Hideaway Vic 3.30 Bill And Barn 4.00 Hymn And A Prayer

Wolverhampton 4.30 Percy Prosecco 5.00 Egotistic 5.30 Seaforth 6.00 Badayel 6.30 Mount Wellington (nb) 7.00 Exceed Loose 7.30 Dolla Dolla Bill

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