Sports have always provided a certain amount of real-life cinematic drama. That’s why factual sports events translate so successfully into movies. Rudy, Hoosiers, and Miracle are just a few of the sports movies based on real-life events.
Horse racing has an innate beauty to it that seems to follow its own script. There are stories woven into every field, begging to be repeated with every hoofbeat. Every once in a while, one of those stories is captured by Hollywood, and the result can be beautiful, even though no movie could ever possibly cover every detail.
Here are some horse racing movies based on the greatest racehorses of all time which have touched the hearts of their viewers and drawn new fans to the Sport of Kings.
Phar Lap (1983)
Phar Lap tells the story of Australia’s great champion racehorse, the chestnut gelding Phar Lap, through the eyes of his groom, Tommy Woodcock (played by Tom Burlinson).
Woodcock serves as the point of view character through which the tale of Phar Lap flows, detailing how an unimpressive, underweight, and disfigured colt grows into one of the greatest weight-carrying racehorses of all time. Eventually, the siren’s call of the world’s richest race ensnares Phar Lap’s connections, and the horse travels to Mexico for the Agua Caliente Handicap in one of the sport’s first truly international events, but tragedy strikes soon after.
Interestingly, there are two different versions of this movie; the US release follows the above chronology. However, the Australian release is told as a flashback, starting with the announcement of the great gelding’s death.
This movie centers on one of the greatest and most well-known racehorses in American history: 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Diane Lane portrays the Secretariat’s owner, Helen “Penny” Chenery, who is faced with a financial crisis during the film when her father, owner of Meadow Stud, dies of a stroke.
Unwilling to outright sell Secretariat, who was already a champion and Horse of the Year as a two-year-old, Cheney syndicates him, gambling that his promise would grow into further accomplishments. She believes in her colt, but what he goes on to do surpasses even her wildest dreams.
Ruffian was a blisteringly fast filly who dominated her female competition in 1974 and 1975, and in 2007 the movie Ruffian was released on television. Starring Sam Shepard as trainer Frank Whitely and Frank Whaley as writer Bill Nack, the film tracks Ruffian’s career from her maiden victory to her tragic match race with Foolish Pleasure.
The portrayal of Ruffian’s owners, Stuart, and Barbara Janney, is especially poignant, as it was their sporting attitude and gestures that unwittingly led to her demise. As a bonus, track announcer Dave Johnson portrays himself, replicating the famous race calls.
Seabiscuit, based on the Laura Hillenbrand book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, was a film heralded not just in sports circles but around the United States, becoming an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture.
The star-studded cast includes Tobey Maguire as jockey John “Red” Pollard, who was regarded as oversized for his profession and was blind in one eye; Chris Cooper as “Silent” Tom Smith, the no-nonsense trainer; and Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard, the ebullient owner who had faith in his horse and his team. Champion jockey Gary Stevens also has a supporting role as Pollard’s mentor and friend, the legendary George Woolf.
The star of stars, however, is of course Seabiscuit (who was portrayed by several horses, most notably Popcorn Deelites). One of the most famous athletes of the Great Depression era, Seabiscuit is shown first as a lackluster competitor but develops into a champion with Smith and Pollard to guide him. He becomes a hero for the common people; a horse from the wrong side of the tracks who fought, time and time again, for every penny he earned, even against rivals seemingly born with a silver bit in their mouths.
These movies show what it means to be a champion, and though tragedy mixes with triumph, they exemplify the beauty and drama in the Sport of Kings.