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The title for this piece could have been the 6 Best Horse Racing Movies plus one. Our list of movies includes real-life stories and fictional tales, but all make excellent viewing for anyone who loves horse racing.
Included are a couple of non-traditional horse racing movies to add some diversity. The movie that shouldn’t be on our list is Secretariat, but hopefully, after you read our review of the film, you will understand our rationale for its inclusion. Regardless, all these horse racing movies are top-notch.
Update: I recently turned out two colts at a horse farm and later learned it was used for filming the movie Dreamer. When I mentioned this to my grandchildren, they wanted to watch the movie immediately.
I was glad they did; it was an exceptional movie with great acting, so I added its review to the end of this list, and now there are seven great horseracing movies.
Phar Lap (1983)
Phar Lap is likely the best horse racing movie ever made. It is a true story of a racehorse whose life follows an unbelievable path. The saying “real life is stranger than fiction” applies to Phar Lap.
Phar Lap dominated horse racing in the 1930s but wasn’t destined to be a champion. He was foaled in New Zealand, trained in Australia, and died in California.
Harry Telford, a down-on-his-luck racehorse trainer, encouraged Davis, one of his last remaining owners, to purchase Phar Lap sight unseen. Once the horse arrived in Australia, Davis was so disappointed in how Phar Lap looked he didn’t want to waste money paying for his training.
Telford agreed to train the horse for 2/3rds of his winnings and no daily training fee. Phar Lap started his career uneventfully, losing his first race. But shortly after began winning and winning, becoming the pride of Australian horse racing.
He won the Melbourne Cup, Cox Plates, and many other matches. He was transported to Mexico to run in the Agua Caliente Handicap, which he won and set a new track record. For most of his later races, he had to carry extra weight.
Phar Lap died in California in 1932 of unknown causes. However, he was once shot at while attending a race. The underground gambling circuit was losing money because of Phar Laps’ domination of racing, and some speculated they might have poisoned him.
This movie captures the essence of the bond that grows between trainer and horse with perfection. Phar Lap is based on the novel written by Michael Wilkinson. This horse racing movie is available here on Amazon.
Seabiscuit ran a close second to Phar Lap on this list; it’s based on the novel Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. During the great depression, people didn’t have many things to cheer about, Seabiscuit came along and gave hope to the masses.
The movie was a critical and monetary success. The Academy of Motion Pictures nominated Seabiscuit for seven Academy Awards. Seabiscuit is the story of three men, Red Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire), Charles S. Howard (played by Jeff Bridges), and Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper), and a horse.
The three men transform Seabiscuit from a lackluster, small high-spirited racehorse into a champion. Red is a jockey in dire straits, Howard is a wealthy businessman dealing with the tragedy of his son’s death, and Smith is a skilled horseman and drifter.
The unlikely trio’s paths cross and lead them to Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit is a small unruly horse with an excellent pedigree. Smith convinces Howard to purchase the horse but has difficulty finding a jockey to ride the animal.
After watching Red fight with some stablemates, Smith decides that Red would be the perfect fit for Seabiscuit. Smith is right, Red is an excellent fit for Seabiscuit, and they begin to win races and the hearts of the American public.
Howard prods the owner of the great War Admiral into a match race. However, before the competition, Red injures his leg. One of Red’s buddies rides Seabiscuit, the real-life jockey Gary Stevens.
- Seabiscuit the movie
- Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand.
- I wrote an article about the great racehorse Seabiscuit that provides some interesting tidbits about his life.
The movie Hidalgo is based on a true story about a man and his horse. Hidalgo is a mustang ridden by Franklin T. Hopkins in the 1890s. Hopkins and Hidalgo are part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
They are promoted as the “world’s greatest endurance horse and rider.” One day they are challenged to either stop calling themselves the greatest endurance team or prove it by entering the “Ocean of Fire” 3000-mile race across the Najd desert.
The Ocean of Fire race customarily restricts the competition to pureblood Arabian horses and Arab riders legendary for their endurance racing abilities.
However, an exception is made to allow Hopkins and Hidalgo to compete. During the race, Hidalgo and Frank face many obstacles and prejudices. Lots of drama ensues involving some questionable characters and intriguing ladies.
Towards the end of the race, both Frank and Hidalgo reach a breaking point, and Frank debates shooting Hidalgo to stop his suffering. But Frank has a spiritual moment and hops back on Hidalgo to finish the race.
After their return home, Frank purchases a herd of mustangs and releases them and Hidalgo to run free. Hidalgo is an excellent movie. It flows nicely and tells an exciting story that just so happens to be based on real-life characters.
The film also has interesting people and ties in relevant themes, including cultural differences and acceptance of our identity. The cast of Hildalgo is excellent; it includes Viggo Mortensen as Frank Hopkins and Omar Sharif as Sheikh Riyadh, the Arab who placed the challenge on Frank and Hildalgo.
Every list of the best horse racing movies should include Hidalgo. It is a different type of racing, but the movie is a lot of fun. Hidalgo has been reviewed by over 1,000 customers and earned a five-star rating. It is available here on Amazon Prime.
Let It Ride (1989)
Let It Ride is a comedy revolving around gambling on horse racing. A perfect ensemble of actors develops characters you easily believe could be real. Let it Ride is funny; it stars Richard Dreyfuss as the lead character Jay Trotter who is married to Teri Garr.
Jay has a gambling problem and promises his wife; that he will stop gambling. That seems okay until he meets up with his buddy Looney, a cab driver like Jay.
Looney, while driving some goons around town, happens to record their conversation about a fixed horse race. Jay takes this information and bets on the run, justifying to himself that it isn’t gambling; it’s a sure thing. Surprisingly he wins the race, and the fun begins.
Let it Ride is a fun movie with some twists and turns. Nothing too serious about the film, just a day in the life of a loser who happens to experience an extraordinary day. The movie is based on the novel Good Vibes by Jay Cronley and was released in 1989.
Should Let it Ride be included on a list of best horse racing movies? Absolutely. If you’ve been around horse racing, you’ll surely relate to the characters in the movie. Click here for streaming information on Amazon.
The Killing (1956)
The Killing is a Stanley Kubric-directed classic film noir. Not a feel-good story; it is a gritty look at some wannabe big-time criminals planning to rob a horse racing track. It’s a black-and-white film made on a low budget that raises the tension and makes the movie watcher cringe.
The director uses to perfection a couple of unique movie-making techniques in the film. First, he doesn’t follow a standard timeline, moving back and forth from past to present.
Second, there is no classic hero or good guy; people are people a little good and a little wrong. The robbery plot involves shooting a horse during a race to create distractions for the robbers.
Without exposing too much, let’s say everything turns ugly, including the main character’s decision to share his robbery plan with his wife.
The Killing may not be on everyone’s list of the best horse racing movies of all time. But we liked this movie because it was unique and pulls you into the plot. Stanley Kubrick created an excellent movie that includes the racetrack as a character in the plot. The Killing is available on Amazon Prime.
A big-money budget, an excellent story, and a solid cast resulted in a good, not great, horse racing movie. The movie focuses on four characters, Secretariat, played by his great-grandson Trolley Boy; Eddie Sweat, Secretariat’s groom, played by Nelsan Ellis; Penny Chenery Tweedy, Secretariat’s owner played by Diane Lane, and Secretariat trainer Lucien Laurin played by John Malkovich.
Secretariat is a well-made movie produced by Disney. It tells the true story of Secretariat, a great thoroughbred racehorse. He won the triple crown in 1973, becoming the first horse to win the triple crown after a 25-year drought.
Secretariat tells the story of a woman, Penny, navigating the horse racing world dominated by men. She also juggles family obligations while trying to save her family’s stability.
Penny is a smart woman with nerves of steel. Secretariat will be her savior, and she knows this even before the horse is born. Lucien trained horses for her family’s stable for years. Together, Lucien and Penny mold Secretariat into a great horse.
Lucien is a seasoned semi-grizzled trainer looking forward to retirement life spent on a golf course, but Penny pulls him back in for one more run at the roses.
Lucien refuses to forego his retirement dreams but agrees to train the Secretariat. As the movie unfolds, Lucien develops a winning relationship with Penny and Secretariat. Malkovich did an excellent job in the role of Lucien.
The groom Eddie Sweat is a likable character with a real passion for Secretariat. Nelsan Ellis does a great job conveying this passion to the audience.
Secretariat rewrote horse racing history; not including this film would be an injustice to racing fans. The movie consists of footage from his great victory at the Belmont Stakes and does an admirable job covering his record-breaking career.
However, the film has glaring holes from a historical perspective. The main one is the failure to include Riva Ridge, Secretariats stablemate that saved Meadow Stables from ruin. Secretariat, the movie can be rented through Amazon. Click here to check current options.
Note: I recently met the person that plays the jockey riding Sham in Secretariat. He’s currently a trainer with horses at the Fairgrounds racecourse but was a professional jockey for years.
I hope you take the time to watch all of these great horse racing movies; you will not be disappointed.
Dreamer is a great story with an amazing cast. Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning play a father and daughter who end up with a crippled but promising racehorse. Kris Kristofferson plays Kurt Russell’s rugged father, and Elizabeth Shue is his reliable wife.
The movie is based on the great racehorse Mariah’s Storm. She started her career winning a Grade III stakes race for two-year-olds and shortly after broke her cannon bone at Keeneland.
Most horses are euthanized after this type of injury. However, Mariah’s Storm recovered and won more stakes races. Dreamer takes this story and adds drama and a bad guy to it. This is a great film, and it’s family-friendly. I watched it with my grandchildren.
Below is a trailer on YouTube for the movie Dreamer.
- To learn about the Friesian horse breed and check out some of the movies they play a role in, click on the link.
- To read more about the top racehorse breeds, check out my article in the link.
I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.