By Ray Wallin
My older teenage son is an eclectic movie buff. While he loves the current mainstream movies, he has affection for some of the classics and obscure directors. One night over a family dinner I said I was interested in finding some obscure movies about horse racing. A day later my son had produced a list which I found to be fascinating.
A couple of years ago I featured the best horse racing movies for a rainy day. While great movies, they are all popular. The following flicks are all worthy of watching and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the selections.
Wise Guys – 1986 (rated R): Danny DeVito, Joe Piscopo
Director Brian De Palma is not known for comedies. He’ll be forever known for directing classics like Carrie, Scarface, Mission: Impossible, and The Untouchables. This predictable comedy though is saved by the acting of a cast that includes Danny DeVito, Joe Piscopo, Harvey Keitel, Dan Hedaya, and Frank Vincent.
It may be more sentimental for me and my track buddy Walter, but some early scenes were filmed in the old Meadowlands grandstand. The basic premise of the story is that two small-time mobsters (DeVito and Piscopo) both placing a bet for the mob boss on a fixed race at the Meadowlands. The two agree to kill each other and hilarity ensues.
It Ain’t Hay – 1943: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Grace McDonald
The comedy duo of Abbott and Costello never disappoint in delivering a laugh. Couple that comedic duo with one of my favorite short story writers, Damon Runyon, and you have a recipe for success. Runyon was known for his mix of formal speech and slang with his characters who had colorful names instead of formal names.
The laughs ensue as Abbott and Costello’s characters try to replace a horse that was accidentally killed as Costello’s character fed it candy. A series of mix ups and misidentification of a champion horse who was caught up in this mess end up with Abbott’s character being able to buy the owners of the horse they killed a replacement.
For a movie that featured Abbott and Costello, the film also includes The Three Stooge’s Shemp Howard, Oscar-nominated Cecil Kellaway (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – 1967), and Samuel Hinds who played James Stewart’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Two Dollar Bettor – 1951: John Litel, Marie Windsor, Steve Brodie
How do most degenerates get started? They bet two dollars and win a few bucks. The game seems easy at that point, and they keep betting, only to find the short term success does not translate to the long term.
In this film noir the same things happen to banker John Hewitt. He wins that first bet and is hooked. Before he knows it, he has wiped out his savings and starts taking money from the bank. He is then told that his bookmaker has a sure thing, and he can get in on it for $20,000. He is duped out of the money and takes matters into his own hands. He ends up killing the two bookie go-between and her boyfriend but is fatally wounded in the process.
Barbara Billingsley who would later go on to be known for her role as June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver and Carl Switzer who was known for his role as Alfalfa on the Little Rascals both add to the cast.
With the tagline “I Bet! I Stole! I Killed!” how can’t it be good? How far would you go to not only win, but break even at the track?
Phar Lap – 1983 (rated PG): Tom Burlinson, Judy Morris, Martin Vaughn
This film could easily be called the Seabiscuit of Australia. It is similar in the sense that a horse that no one wanted is brought back to stakes level racing and no one could then beat. It is based on a true story and was filmed with an Australian cast.
Phar Lap’s legacy on the track is only overshadowed by his premature death. In fact, the American version of this film cuts the opening scene of the horse dying before flashing back to him arriving in Australia, to the end of the film since Americans were not familiar with his story.
One other interesting note is that Phar Lap’s groom and later trainer Tommy Woodcock does have a role as a horse trainer in the movie.
The Killing – 1956: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards
I saved the best for last. In what would be a storied career, this would be the first major film for Stanley Kubrick. While better known for blockbusters like Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, this film noir does not disappoint. In fact, Quentin Tarantino has even said that The Killing influenced him in his production of Reservoir Dogs.
For the 1950’s, the successful heist of stealing $2 million at a racetrack during a featured race rivals the success of the Lufthansa heist portrayed in Goodfellas. Everything would have gone as planned if the crooked teller could have kept his mouth shut instead of telling his wife the plan. In the end, the mastermind, Johnny Clay, tries to flee only to have his attempt thwarted by a dog that gets in the way of the baggage cart. In the end he realizes that running is futile and mutters the closing line of the move, “What’s the difference?” as his wife urges him to run.
So take a break from trying to make your living playing the races, make some popcorn, and settle in for the best horse racing movies you haven’t heard of. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.