Horse racing’s always been a game inherently full of compelling storylines. From fan favorites like Secretariat and Seabiscuit to the gritty stories of gamblers, grooms and trainers, many of the characters – equine and human – seem made for the big screen. Still, there are hundreds of bad sports films out there, so even though horse racing is a beautiful and viable subject matter, there’s plenty of challenge involved in creating a great motion picture…
Top 10 Horse Racing Films
Kudos to these ten horse racing-themed films for their integrity, entertainment, and artistic values. Like the game itself, a good horse racing flick should give you goosebumps at least once during its run-time to merit serious consideration. Additionally, the action should appear real, not contrived, prescriptive or laden with cliches. The final list is as follows:
#10: Riding High, 1950
Noted crooner and actor Bing Crosby was very fond of the ponies and thankfully didn’t pass up this chance to play the lead as Dan Brooks, a young Ivy League grad, who was far more interested in horse racing than making money in the business world. The plot focuses on Brooks’ (Crosby) love for his horse Broadway Bill and his obsession with running the horse in the Imperial Derby. While certainly dated, those who love racing and 1950’s film will surely enjoy this remake of a 1934 film bearing the same name.
#9: Warhorse, 2011
Warhorse, directed by Steven Spielberg, is an American wartime drama set just before World War I. The film tells the touching story of a young boy named Joey, who raises a Thoroughbred horse raised by the young teenager. The horse is then bought by the British Army, which leads Joey to go on an enlightening journey through Europe where he meets a number of characters on the road. All the while, experiencing first-hand the horror and tragedy of the war happening around him.
#8: Racing Stripes, 2005
Yep, this live-action animated film seriously makes the list. Despite the absurd plot of a zebra (Stripes) competing against thoroughbred racehorses, this movie is one of the few children’s flicks in the racing genre and provides enough entertainment value, albeit of the anthropomorphic variety, to keep things interesting for adults. The film is also buoyed by stellar voiceover work from the likes of David Spade, Snoop Dogg, Steve Harvey, and Dustin Hoffman.
#7: Ruffian, 2007
This made-for-television movie produced by ESPN films tells the tragic story of one of the greatest fillies of all-time. While the ending is certainly hard to watch even for those who know the story, this film is still worth its salt as an homage to a champion. Get the Kleenex ready.
#6: Secretariat, 2010
While this film probably rates a little higher on some lists, the Disney production went a little too far with some of its archetypal characterizations. Still, one must admit that there are more than a few hair-raising moments including the film’s treatment of Big Red’s legendary gallop in the Belmont Stakes. Nelsan Ellis’ portrayal of Eddie Sweat, Secretariat’s groom, is a strong performance underscoring the relationship that existed between the two.
#5: Dreamer, 2005
Based on the story of the injured, then resurgent filly, Mariah’s Storm, this film strikes a chord by offering its viewers a glimpse of the seedy underbelly of racing along with its magnificence and beauty. Protagonist Cale Crane, played convincingly by a young Dakota Fanning, is a character everyone can get behind as the familiar theme of inspired little girl enamored with a horse is given a unique twist in this movie. Kurt Russell and Kris Kristofferson also deliver strong efforts as the father and grandfather of Crane (Fanning).
Dreamer is another film that evokes emotion, inspiration and investment in its premise from audiences. Who doesn’t love a great underdog/comeback story?
The film is enhanced by the poetic motif repeated throughout: “You are a great champion/When you ran, the ground shook/The sky opened, and mere mortals parted/Parted the way to victory/Where you’ll meet me in the winner’s circle/Where I’ll put a blanket of flowers on your back.”
#4: National Velvet, 1944
This classic, technicolor film was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry in 2003 and remains a truly great movie that transcends its subject matter. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, who plays a 12-year-old horse-lover from Sussex, England named Velvet Brown, the film tells the story of the young girl’s unlikely acquisition of a highly-spirited gelding called The Pie. The two make an improbable journey to the Grand National steeplechase where affirmation, recognition, and self-discovery await them.
#3: Let It Ride, 1989
While most films in the horse racing genre focus on other aspects of track life, this cult classic focuses on the betting experience through the lens of a cab driver, turned gambler Jay Trotter, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Trotter enjoys a dizzying run of success by parlaying a tip into a small fortune. The allure, adrenaline and fun of betting horses is captured in this film even if the protagonist’s good fortune is too improbable to be believed. This element of fantasy, however, allows the film to explore its primary theme of the precarious nature of good-fortune in life. Ask ten horseplayers their favorite racing flick and most will land on this one.
#2: Phar Lap: Heart of a Nation, 1983
This Australian film is a must-see for those who enjoy docudramas in the vein of Seabiscuit. Phar Lap, an all-time great thoroughbred who won 37 of 51 starts in three countries, had a career that was as interesting and mysterious as it was successful. Phar Lap’s primary accomplishments came in Australia, but the superstar was American-owned and eventually made his way to Mexico and the famed Agua Caliente Racetrack where he set a track record in the Caliente Handicap – a race that was offered for the largest purse of any run in North America at the time. The film tells the complete story of Phar Lap’s rise to prominence and the troubles that followed the mighty horse, including his attempted murder and the mysterious circumstances of his death.
#1: Seabiscuit, 2003
If there is a horse racing epic, this is it.
The biggest commerical success of any racing film, this critically acclaimed piece provides a thorough, meaningful, and lively treatment of one of horse racing’s most transcendent stars.
This compelling story tells how a horse no one wanted changes the lives of a heart-broken owner, downtrodden jockey and tough-luck trainer while giving a nation suffering through the Great Depression something to believe in. Set during an era when horse racing was still a national obsession, Seabiscuit the movie and Seabiscuit the horse, are pieces of important pieces of American culture.