The Best Horse Racing Movies Ever Made
Some people love a horror movie, others a romance, many like a comedy or maybe a crime thriller floats the boat and rocks the cradle of others.
But regardless of the genre, racing fans can rarely turn down a film where the star is a horse. Factual, fanciful and even the outright absurd, if the sport of kings or horse racing betting is the theme, racing enthusiasts will be drawn to it.
Of course, there have been some excellent documentaries in recent years but the best racing movies are true period dramas that cannot age and will never lose their relevance.
They stand the test of time and while storylines may deviate and dramatize, entertainment is, by definition, the purpose of a movie.
Phar Lap (1983)
In our opinion, Phar Lap is the greatest racing movie of all time, a faultless masterpiece. Unless you are Australian or a New Zealander (where Phar Lap was foaled) you are probably already asking, who was Phar Lap? He was a sporting icon who lifted the spirits of the Aussie public during the early years of the Great Depression.
Unplaced in his first four career starts, he went on to win 37 of his next 47 starts (with a 14-race unbeaten sequence) claiming a Melbourne Cup, two Cox Plates, AJC Derby, Victoria Derby and three Craven Plates. But the Phar Lap story, which has been embodied in this 1983 film beautifully, is far more that the tale of a cheap horse done good.
What appears to be fanciful sub plots involving death threats and gun shots during the course of the movie are indeed factual happenings. As were outrageous weight carrying asks, injury and an amazing bond between the horse and his groom (or ‘strapper’) Tommy Woodcock, who went on to become one of Australia’s most loved trainers and had a short cameo in this movie.
This film, which is unbelievably true, is gripping but tender, it sets the pulse racing and will, courtesy of some of the most touching and moving scenes you will ever see in any film, unearth a soft side you never knew you had.
They say if there was never a Rain Man there would have never been a Forest Gump. Unquestionably, if there had never been a Phar Lap, America would never have churned out big budget blockbusters like Seabiscuit (2003) or Secretariat (2010). It’s better than both and was made on a shoestring.
A word of warning for first time viewers, though. There are two versions of Phar Lap, one made for its domestic Australian audience and one for the rest of the world. Whilst the same scenes are used in both, try to avoid the Aussie version (unless you’re Australian of course) as it works retrospectively which will spoil some of the suspense for those that do not know the Phar Lap tale.
The story of Bob Champion overcoming cancer to win the 1981 Grand National on Aldaniti, who had been off the track with a career threatening injury for over a year, has been forgotten by some and will be news to others. If you are in either category, then this is a much-watch film.
Uplifting with a soundtrack which is still associated with the Grand National to this day, at the very least a viewing will give you a glimpse into the ‘old Aintree’ with its terrifying fences, quaint but tired winners enclosure and dilapidated grandstand – all of which make an appearance within the opening titles.
Unquestionably John Hurt was a bad choice of lead actor, when this film was released in 1984 he was a tired-looking 44. Bob Champion was 32 when he won the Grand National on Aldaniti. But there was some great acting from Jan Francis, while Edward Woodward played an excellent Josh Gifford (Aldaniti’s trainer).
The storyline moves along well and, as we all know Aldaniti won the Grand National, it’s safe to divulge the film ends on a high note.
But Champion beating cancer, at a time when no cancer prognosis came with optimism, is the real story and it’s delivered beautifully in this moving film.
Interestingly, you will see Ladbrokes Entertainment Ltd feature in the titles, which is a reminder the company, with chairman Cyril Stein at its helm, were steadfast supporters of the Grand National. It should also never be forgotten if it were not for Stein, Aintree Racecourse would have been a housing estate before Red Rum had the chance to win his third National.
Do not put your boot through your PC’s screen or throw your mobile device to the ground and stamp on it. We have not suffered a massive meltdown and we are not suggesting even a two-minute watch of the dire 1999 film of the same name.
But if you can source a copy of the BBC’s ‘Screen Two’ version of Shergar, do so. Sadly it will arrive on a VHS or even Betamax format, but buying one of those devices to play this 1986 film will be well worth it.
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The made-for-TV film starred Stephen Rea who masterminded the kidnapping of the English and Irish Derby winner and Gary Waldhorn who played the part of the Aga Khan.
The movie was based on the facts known about the kidnapping and the days and weeks that followed and they are faultless in their detail while the colour and the film’s backstory are extremely plausible. All-in-all, this is a long-forgotten gem.
Murphy’s Stroke (1980)
Almost two years before Shergar was winning the English and Irish Derbies and Aldanati and Bob Champion were triumphing over adversity, Thames Television were grooming a 26-year-old Pierce Brosnan for stardom, giving him the leading role in their TV movie, Murphy’s Stroke. It was his first ever movie role.
The film, first broadcast in May 1980, follows a classic off-course gamble involving the unraced Gay Future, Edward O’Grady (who prepared the horse prior to his 10/1 success at Cartmel), Tony Murphy (who masterminded the coup) and flamboyant owner Tony Collins.
Like the Aldaniti story, the passage of time means many will be unaware of the Gay Future plot or its outcome. The race went off in 1974 after all and that’s a year before the better known Yellow Sam betting coup went down.
Suffice to say, this flick is well worth a watch. It may resemble an episode of Minder in places but it sticks to the facts well enough and is a great reminder of a time before mobile phones, computerised liabilities, live broadcasts and betting sites.
As a footnote, watch the film closely and you may spot a young Jonjo O’Neil amongst the riders along with fellow professional jockeys Ron Barry and Neale Doughty.
After the Cartmel gamble the four-year-old Gay Future ran at Hexham where he was ridden to victory by the 7lb claiming Jonjo O’Neill but was later killed in a fall at Wetherby.
As none of the films listed above were made in America or feature an American equine star, we are duty bound to mention to Seabiscuit, a film made on a colossal $87 million budget in 2003.
Given its price-tag, the cinematography is understandably excellent but the film is heavily dramatized (the 1949 version of Seabiscuit starring Shirley Temple was severely fictionalised) and you arguably have to be American to fully appreciate it.
A highlight is Gary Stevens’ (winner of nine Triple Crown legs) portrayal of jockey George Woolfe. Rarely does a sportsman turn his hand to acting so seamlessly and so well.
And a remarkable annotation… Australian Billy Elliot, who was Phar Lap's jockey in his final race (at Agua Caliente, Mexico), gave his Phar Lap saddle to George Woolf as a gesture of friendship.
Woolf went on to become one of America's greatest riders and used the saddle when riding Seabiscuit. Both he and Phar Lap captivated a nation in the midst of the depression. Sadly, Woolf was killed on the racecourse at Santa Anita in 1946 on a rare occasion that he was not using Eliot’s saddle.
2010’s Secretariat cost $35 million to make and was a success, taking $60 million in box office sales. But this is a Disney film and only if you approach it with a Disney mind-set will you appreciate it. Even so, with tacky acting in places and ridiculous race track commentaries, purists will struggle.
The most recent horse racing movie is the biographical drama Ride Like a Girl which follows the career and Melbourne Cup winning exploits of Michelle Payne, while A-lister Sam Neill plays a leading role.
Released in Australia in September 2019, the rest of the world did not get a glimpse of this movie, until the 2020 (as Covid-19 postponed the launch of many films).
Yet another Australian film, The Cup, provides some great entertainment. At the heart of the story is the 2002 Melbourne Cup and jockey Damien Oliver who lost his brother in a racing accident just days before the race.
But this 2011 movie, directed by the same director as Phar Lap 27 years beforehand, is light hearted in places with an amusing short scene featuring Sheikh Mohammed being a rib tickler.
Just how they cast Brendan Gleeson as Dermot Weld is mid-boggling, but he’s the lead actor and that means this movie has some star quality which gives it broad appeal. Once again, this is not one for the purists.
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