Media Treatment of Thoroughbreds … History vs. Fiction, Print vs. the Big Screen

Not since the 1970s – when I worked at the Jersey shore’s Monmouth Park Racetrack; authored a master’s thesis on New York City’s Off-Track Betting Corporation, and developed a  hypothetical business plan for introducing theatre-based off-track wagering for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at the New School – had I been anything more than a casual fan of thoroughbred racing and an occasional visitor to the Big Apple’s OTB parlors.

My ’70s experiences also included a fortuitous trip to Ireland, which saw me witness the great Nijinsky and his dominating Irish Derby victory at the Curragh. At the same time, I was introduced to the novels of British crime writer and former steeplechase jockey Dick Francis, the undisputed king of thoroughbred fiction. At once, I became addicted. But the time demands of marriage, fatherhood and my professional career removed book-reading from my list of priorities.

Over the past 48 months, however, I’ve reacquainted myself with “the sport of kings.” The reason?… A post-retirement decision to become a serious writer and use the thoroughbred business as a backdrop for my foray into the fiction genre.

The result has been the first two installments of what I call the “Cutter/Wellington trilogy” (named for two families at the center of the saga) – What Are The Odds? The Calculus of Coincidence (Outskirts Press, Parker, CO, Dec. 17, 2019) and All In?… Beware the Cross Currents (Outskirts Press, Parker, CO, Sep. 13, 2020). The third, Life’s Elusive Horizons, is tentatively scheduled for publication during the first quarter of 2022 (Visit www.amazon.com/author/passion-from-rhilliard) for more information and ordering details.)

As part of my re-indoctrination, I did a quick search for books and movies focused on thoroughbred racing. Unlike our national pastime, where most of us can readily name novels (The Great American Novel, The Might Have Been, Play for a Kingdom), historical accounts (Ball Four, The Bronx Zoo: The Astonishing Inside Story of the 1978 World Champion New York Yankees, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series), films based on true stories (61*, Moneyball, The Rookie) or movies of pure fiction (The Natural, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham). I’m sad to report the same can’t be said for our equine sport.

But here are four thoroughbreds you’re likely to be somewhat familiar with (lol), accompanied by stats and high points of their racing careers as well as the books and movies that tell their stories:

Seabiscuit – born 1933; light bay colt (Hard TackSwing On, by Man o’ War); bred by Gladys Mills Phipps. Racing career (1935-1940); 89 starts (33 wins, 15 places, 13 shows). Best known for his match-race win over 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral at Pimlico. Fittingly, the race was at the Preakness distance of a mile and three-sixteenths.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Random House, 1999), is the book authored by Lauren Hillenbrand. Seabiscuit: The True Story of Three Men and a Racehorse is the movie from DreamWorks Pictures, Spyglass Entertainment, The Kennedy/Marshall Company and Larger Than Life Productions (2003). The star-studded cast included Toby Maguire as jockey “Red” Pollard; Jeff Bridges as super auto salesman-turned thoroughbred owner Charles Howard; Elizabeth Banks as Marcela Howard; Chris Cooper in the role of trainer Tom Smith; William H. Macy in his unforgettable portrayal of west coast thoroughbred radio announcer “Tick Tock McGlaughlin, and, of course, Gary Stevens as “the Iceman,” Canadian jockey George Woolf.

Secretariat – born 1970; chestnut colt (Bold Ruler – Somethingroyal, by Princequillo); bred by Meadow Stud Inc. Racing career (1972-1973); 21 starts (16 wins, 3 places 1 show). Best known for winning the 1973 Triple Crown, with all races run in record time.

Secretariat: The Making of a Champion (Arthur Fields Books, 1975) was written by William Nack. Walt Disney Pictures retained Mike Rich and Sheldon Turner to develop the movie, Secretariat, in 2010. Diane Lane and John Malkovich co-starred as owner Penny Chenery Tweedy and trainer Lucien Laurin.

Ruffian – born 1972; dark bay filly (ReviewerShenanigans, by Native Dancer); bred by Stuart & Barbara Janney. Racing career (1974-1975); 11 starts (10 wins, 1 DNF). Best known for winning the filly Triple Crown and suffering her first defeat in a 1 1/4 mile match race with Foolish Pleasure, when she broke down on the backstretch at Belmont Park shortly after running the first quarter in 0:22.1 and taking a half-length lead. Replays showed Ruffian breaking in leaving the gate and hitting her ankle. It was a testament to her heart that she led thru the first 3/16 before succumbing (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=ruffian+match+race+video&docid=608048360272298267&mid=80A144A3795C5C75CEC880A144A3795C5C75CEC8&view=detail&FORM=VIRE).

Jane Schwartz authored Ruffian: Burning From the Start (Random House, 1991). Jim Burnstein and Garrett K. Schiff helped ESPN Original Entertainment bring Ruffian to the big screen, with actors Sam Shepard, Frank Whaley and Christine Belford.

Mine That Bird – born 2006; bay gelding (BirdstoneMining My Own, by Smart Strike); bred by Peter LaMantia, Jim Blackburn, Needham-Betz Thoroughbreds, Inc. Racing career (2008-2010); 16 starts (4 wins, 2 places, 2 shows). Best known for winning the 2009 Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-1. Although the gelding finished second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont, the gelding would never again enter the winner’s circle.

At The Gate, In The Stretch and The Finish Line comprised a graphic novel trilogy developed by Rod McCall and Price Hall and published by Mine The Bird The Movie, LLC in 2011. The movie, 50 to 1, was produced and released by Jim Wilson and Faith Conroy in 2014. The cast included Skeet Ulrich, Christian Kane, William Devane and Madelyn Deutch. Calvin Borel, the jockey who road Mine That Bird in the Derby, played himself.

For thoroughbred racing movies of pure fiction, I have to go back to 1939 and the Franklyn Warner Production, Long Shot, a drama featuring Gordon Jones, C. Henry Gordon, George E. Stone and Marsha Hunt (the transition from “silent” films to “talkies” had taken place between 1926 and 1930). A half century later, more recognizable names – Richard Dreyfuss, David Johansen, Teri Garr, Allen Garfield and Jennifer Tilly – were stars in the action/ comedy, Let It Ride.

I would be remiss if I didn’t conclude this blog with mention of Guys and Dolls, the 1951 Broadway musical that won five Tony Awards, including best musical, and was released on the big screen in New York City on my third birthday, Nov. 3, 1955. Frank Sinatra starred as gambler Nathan Detroit (Walter Matthau had the role in the play); Marlon Brando played Sky Masterson; Jean Simmons was the virtuous Sarah Brown, and Vivian Blaine took on the role as Nathan’s long-time fiancee, Adelaide. While the plot is all about, well, uh … guys and dolls (you know the gig – the devil on one shoulder arguing with the angel on the other), a bunch of thoroughbreds stole the show.

Look and listen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAIlVCStp3c). I guarantee it’ll bring a smile to your face and “warm the cockles of your heart.”

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