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Summer Sneaks

A thorny run for the roses

The racetrack used to provide Hollywood with prime fare, but the genre has fallen on hard times, as has the sport. That may soon change.

May 04, 2003|Elizabeth Mitchell | 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?

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 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.

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.

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