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.
"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.