In the wacky world of horse films, ‘Secretariat’ runs (relatively) close to the truth

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As Disney’s ‘Secretariat’ gallops into theaters this weekend, the film provides some fodder for horse racing enthusiasts to nitpick. Many movies based on real events, it seems, distort at least some of the story under the imprimatur of dramatic license, but racing movies about real horses often seem to be at the front of that pack.

‘Phar Lap,’ a 1983 Australian picture about a tragic wonder horse from Down Under, was a notable exception -- one reason it is still considered one of the best racing films ever made.


On the other hand, both Seabiscuit movies played with the truth. ‘The Story of Seabiscuit’ (1949) is perhaps the worst horse movie ever made. Its story is virtually cut from whole cloth, with Barry Fitzgerald as a trainer mumbling profundities and Shirley Temple trying to keep up with a badly done Irish accent. The 2003 film ‘Seabiscuit,’ which was nominated for a best picture Oscar, contained inaccuracies; it said, for instance, that Seabiscuit arch-rival War Admiral was a much bigger horse, when in reality the two were about the same size.

More recently, in a TV movie about the great filly Ruffian, racing fans were quick to notice that most of the horses playing the star had male equipment underneath.

Some other notable racing movies include ‘Champions,’ made in Britain in 1984; ‘The Killing,’ Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film from 1956; and ‘Premieres Armes,’ a little-known picture from France in 1950.

‘Champions’ is an example of filmmakers taking a terrific true story and simply running with it. In the 1981 Grand National Steeplechase near Liverpool, the winners were Aldaniti, an 11-year-old, and his jockey, Bob Champion, who had survived cancer. Talking about perfect casting: Who better to play the horse than the real Aldaniti? John Hurt was superb as Champion. Purists might not include ‘The Killing’ as a racing picture, because the plot revolves around the robbery of a race track, but a key element is the running of a big race at Bay Meadows, which was chosen by Kubrick as a location after several Eastern tracks turned him down. Kubrick, working for nothing, shot the film in 24 days and paid Sterling Hayden $40,000 to star as the ringleader of the mob.

‘Premieres Armes,’ which means ‘The First Weapons,’ wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1958. It’s a beautifully told coming-of-age story about a young boy who is sent by his father to a school for jockeys, where a cruel trainer and other fledgling jockeys work him over. Credited with co-writing the screenplay is Rene Wheeler, who wrote ‘Rififi,’ one of the best caper films ever made.

But battling ‘The Story of Seabiscuit’ for the title of worst racing film might be ‘Pride of the Blue Grass,’ from 1939. In the movie, while a mare is foaling, lightning strikes the barn and the owner is killed. The surviving son becomes a jockey, but when he rides the foal in the Kentucky Derby, the horse goes blind. Suspended for a year, as though he were responsible for the blindness, the jockey returns in another running of the Grand National, which the horse, still sightless, manages to win.

Compared with ‘Pride of the Blue Grass,’ the missteps in ‘Secretariat’ are minuscule. Jockeys are shown in their silks at the barn. Two important horses in the Secretariat story, his stablemate Riva Ridge and his rival Angle Light, are basically ignored. Riva Ridge, who won the Kentucky Derby the year before Secretariat did, gets no mention at all.

-- Bill Christine

Bill Christine covered horse racing for The Times for 24 years and currently writes about the sport for and the Daily Racing Form.