Big-screen winners

The Baltimore Sun

For those who would rather spend this afternoon in their television rooms than the Preakness infield, here are five movies centered on horse racing that should get you in the mood for the big race. Tacked on to the end are two more films that, though unavailable on DVD or tape and rarely seen, sound worth the hunt.


A Day at the Races (directed by Sam Wood, 1937): The Marx Brothers are unleashed at the racetrack, but only so they can raise enough money to save a sanitarium owned by the lovely Maureen O'Sullivan (five years removed from her first stint as Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan). The mission: get their horse, High Hat, into the big race, by whatever means necessary. Harpo is the jockey, Chico is his best bud and racetrack tout, and Groucho is a veterinarian (Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush) courting a rich, hypochondriac widow (played by perennial foil Margaret Dumont) whose money has kept the sanitarium running this long. Great fun, and you'll never watch that final drive down the homestretch the same way again.

National Velvet (Clarence Brown, 1944): A 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor wins a horse, then has this crazy idea about entering him (and her) in the Grand National steeplechase. Mickey Rooney is the rudderless young buck who agrees to train the horse, who's a bit of a free spirit himself. Inspirational, heart-rending and the movie that made Taylor a star - what more do you want? (Thought to ponder: Before Taylor got the role, Katharine Hepburn and Shirley Temple were considered.)

The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956): Sterling Hayden, who plays an ex-con, leads a gang of would-be crooks in a heist at the local racetrack. Timothy Carey is the killer hired to shoot one of the horses as the animal heads through the far turn, to create a diversion. This noirish caper film, with its jumbled narrative, announced Kubrick's status as a director to be reckoned with.

The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard, 1979): A boy and an Arabian stallion are shipwrecked on a deserted island, where they become inseparable. Once they're rescued, of course, there's only one thing to do: Race the fastest horses in the world and show them what being a champion is all about. Beautifully shot. Bonus: Mickey Rooney, 35 years after National Velvet, gets to play a horse trainer again.

Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003): A headstrong, champion racehorse ridden by a headstrong, champion jockey gets a second chance after both suffer career-threatening injuries. This true story of the everyman racehorse that was an inspiration to millions in Depression-era America was nominated for seven Academy Awards and gave Tobey Maguire (as jockey Red Pollard) the chance to prove he was more than Spider-Man. The movie possibly features the best cinematic horse racing ever.

Two films for the adventurous: Maryland (Henry King, 1940), set in its titular state (though not filmed here), stars Fay Bainter as an embittered former horsewoman who, after her husband is thrown from a horse and dies, wants nothing more to do with the animals. Wanna bet what her son wants to do when he grows up? The Winner's Circle (Felix E. Feist, 1948), the story of a racehorse told from the horse's point of view, has appearances by many of the era's racing legends, including Seabiscuit, Man O'War, Whirlaway and War Admiral.

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