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A thorny run for the roses

Special to The Times

The camera should love horse racing. The jockeys wear silks colored like rainforest birds. The muscled haunches of the horses stalking the paddock are brushed to a dazzling sheen.

When the starting gates open, a wave of thoroughbred power crashes onto the track, and two minutes of high excitement unfold at top speed with big money riding on the outcome.

The extras include broken-down men who describe get-rich-quick schemes in an endangered jargon; mob heavies; and, on special occasions, young women dressed as if it’s Easter.

Given the visual excitement and archetypal characters involved in a sport helpfully contained in an approximately one-mile oval, one has to wonder, why are there so few good horseracing movies?

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An informal survey of the cinematic preferences of trainers, breeders, jockey agents, track workers and turf reporters reveals just how scant the pickings are. The racetrack has appeared in great movies as a stop in the midst of other action, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” or in respectable recent fare such as Steven Soderbergh’s remake of “Ocean’s 11" and Neil Jordan’s “The Good Thief” with Nick Nolte. In those movies, a trip to the track lets the audience know that the protagonist understands high risk and loose cash.

The track milieu exposes Eliza Doolittle’s rough edges in “My Fair Lady” (1964) to charming effect. But in terms of dramatic films that focus fully on racing, precious few manage not to embarrass the actors involved or, in recent years, earn back their expenses. The most recent horse feature films, “Black Beauty” (1994) and the animated “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002),” had less-than-stellar worldwide box-office runs.

The dearth of beloved horseracing movies may be explained in part by the fact that many of the racetrack movies made during the heyday of racing have not been translated into DVD or video. Maybe a gem or two is hidden in the archives, but it will take a chance encounter on late-night cable for anyone to spot that greatness. (For those interested, a long list of horseracing movies appears at horseracing.about .com, and registering at movies .eonline.com will guarantee you an alert when a selected title like “The Day the Bookies Wept” (1939) or “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry” (1937) is being televised in your area.)

In 2003, three films will attempt to redeem the category. “Hidalgo,” which deals with the 3,000-mile Oceans of Fire race across the Arabian Desert in 1890 and features Viggo “Stryder” Mortensen and Omar Sharif, arrives in theaters in October. “The Young Black Stallion,” a prequel featuring a little girl/horse relationship, is scheduled to debut at Christmas. (Also in 2003, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Douglas start production on “Monkeyface,” about a track scam.)

But the most highly anticipated contender hits screens this summer. “Seabiscuit” aims to loft to the top of the exclusive list of equine favorites, and its odds are short: The $87-million film is based on a book that has stayed on the upper part of bestseller lists for a couple of years, and the talent includes compelling Academy Award winner Chris Cooper and “Spider-Man” star Tobey Maguire, who is just the type to drive sentimental, horse-crazy girls wild.

A brief peek at some footage suggests that director Gary Ross effectively borrows the violent chaos of action movies for the race sequences, and the older set will enjoy the nostalgia of seeing its American childhoods brought to the big screen.

Most important, the filmmakers appear unlikely to succumb to the siren song of the track, becoming so entranced by the thoroughbred’s beauty that they forget about such important details as plot, character and meaning.

Having author Laura Hillenbrand, a former turf reporter, on board as a consultant will prevent another of the major problems modern racing movies suffer: lack of familiarity with the subject. During the racing-film heydays in the ‘30s and ‘50s, the public actually knew a thing or two about the sport. In 1938, as Hillenbrand’s book notes, Seabiscuit received more column inches than any other public figure.

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Three categories

For a variety of reasons -- including competing forms of gambling and entertainment, tax codes and a racing season that runs eternal -- the grandstands at tracks across the country have emptied. Where films used to gracefully incorporate racing motifs as a part of life, modern dramas pick up track imagery as a bit of exotica -- the equivalent of suddenly sending a lead character to Morocco or a New York sex club. The racetrack in these films is mysterious, dangerous and loaded with Medean emotion.

Among horse people, one of the least-loved in this category is “Simpatico” (1999). “This should be viewed if only to discover how really bad a movie can be,” writes one horse expert. The film adapts Sam Shepard’s play and despite the talent summoned to the task -- Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone, Catherine Keener and Albert Finney -- it doesn’t work. The good movies fall into three categories: movies in which the racetrack functions as a playground for the protagonist in search of financial success; horse-hero films; and relationship movies, in which a down-at-heel (fill in the blank) reveals his repressed love for a child through the conduit of a horse.

The first category is best suited for people who don’t consider themselves racing fans, because ambition translates easily across many milieus. Sometimes the second and third categories are combined for the more aggressive jerking of tears. As predictable as the categories sound, they make for real entertainment when the director manages to find a previously unexplored edge.

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In the horse-hero film, a scorned animal saves humans from some form of damnation. A good rule of thumb is that if a horse stars, the movie is perfect for screening with children. I have yet to find a feature with an equine lead anything but noble of character.

“Phar Lap,” the 1984 film based on the true story about the superstar horse bred in New Zealand, starts in the traditional way, with a colt deemed useless showing his spunk and rescuing his trainer from career and financial ruin. Despite fears that this story might unwind according to formula, the dignified performances and graceful period settings keep one watching. By the end, you can’t help but be taken in by the gorgeous chestnut. Another winner in this category is the dreamlike “The Black Stallion” (1979), produced by Frances Ford Coppola. Characters arrive and make ominous remarks that hauntingly culminate in nothing, and one early shipwreck sequence feels viscerally like a nightmare. Blissful subconscious must be the author of the exquisite footage of an Arabian colt and young boy frolicking on yellow sand. A recent PBS documentary on Seabiscuit employed race footage from “The Black Stallion” to boost the visual excitement of the straight journalistic enterprise, and for good reason. The camerawork surpasses any current portrayal of thoroughbreds competing.

The real McCoy

When “The Story of Seabiscuit” (1949) was made, the best-looking moving image of horseracing was the actual footage of Seabiscuit galloping. Director David Butler resorted to pasting the track sequences into his feature when he could find no horse that looked as goofy as the thoroughbred while running as well. That pragmatic solution helped keep this erratic movie in the hearts of horseracing fans by giving showing the real Seabiscuit at his peak.

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The odd plot follows an immigrant Irish lass, played by a teenage Shirley Temple, accompanying her uncle to his new post training horses at a Kentucky breeding farm. The film opens with a scene so racist -- with the breeding farm owner’s adult “boy” Murphy condescended to by the newcomers -- it’s hard to shake one’s queasiness as the underhorse story unfolds.

Historical accuracy, for the most part, ends with the Seabiscuit footage. Sure, the horse was owned by the Howards from California, and he did run in the races included in the film, but there was no Irish trainer named Shawn O’Hara who talked to the wee folk nor a nursing student niece who feared falling in love with a jockey because she had seen her own brother perish on the oval. No audience for the upcoming “Seabiscuit” will wring their hands at the idea of another director having a go at the legend.

A movie that all adult audiences will appreciate is Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 heist film “The Killing.” With its noir thriller plot, detailed performances by a large cast, nuanced script and clever camerawork, it’s constantly engaging. As ex-con Johnny Clay maneuvers through an ambitious day at the track, Kubrick ingeniously employs the race card as an anxiety-building countdown to the main event. The load-in of thoroughbreds to the gate takes on a sinister quality, as does the rattle of the announcer’s ticktock of each race over the track PA system. The director seems as savvy about the track as the plotters themselves.

Joe Pytka’s “Let It Ride” (1989) also gets a few key racetrack details right, in particular its portraits of the railbirds. Ultimately, the film’s aftereffect is somewhat hollow, as if you’ve spent a few too many consecutive days in the grandstands (for non-trackgoers, equivalent to a long car ride) and you have to at least be open to liking Richard Dreyfuss to enjoy this movie. Because of its contemporary realism, this movie received the most votes by horse people. Most avid bettors, no matter how many scams they have brushed up against or how much human desperation they have witnessed, tend to fall on the naive side of the savvy spectrum. “Let It Ride” nails that reality, presenting a full range of the classic bettor personalities without falling into easy cliches.

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“Boots Malone,” starring William Holden, contains another portrait of a unique track personality, a jockey agent who can’t find a rider to tout. Although the film came out half a century ago, the problems and complaints of the main characters are identical to the difficulties I heard about in research at the track. Boots is a track hero -- not above a little behind-the-scenes shimmy sham, but with a soft spot for the less fortunate. The film takes a few fantastic leaps and is peppered with the kind of period double entendres that delight semioticians, but the script earns the drama of the penultimate choice Boots has to make about whether or not to let a kid jock have his dream.

Also recommended are Frank Capra’s little-known comedy “Broadway Bill” (1934), about a businessman down on his luck pinning his salvation on a newly purchased racehorse (categories one and two) and the weepy “Glory” (1956) with Walter Brennan (horse-hero category). Racing fans will enjoy “The Whip,” a 1917 silent movie directed by Maurice Tourneur. This fast-action film ricochets so quickly, a modern viewer can get lost in the dramatic leaps and erratic edits. But one can’t help liking the nearly century-old footage of Saratoga racing, dramatic train wreck and a feminist resolution.

As the time between Triple Crown winners in the real world stretches ever further, with no horse claiming the prize since 1978, fans need to turn to film to remember what a real track star looked like. “Seabiscuit” employed 10 horses to effectively capture the spirit and success of the one real equine athlete. Maybe in the ensuing nostalgia -- back to when a horse could win continuously against all odds, and the tracks had enough fans in attendance to make an elaborate heist on a day of racing seem like a brilliant get-rich quick scheme -- someone will dream a new film that does the sport and its history justice.

Elizabeth Mitchell is the author of “Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horse Racing” (Hyperion), now out in paperback.

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