Pre-Kentucky Derby “Gallop” Poll Of The Greatest Horse Racing Movies

Written By Marian Rosin on May 3, 2022 - Last Updated on May 22, 2023
Best horse racing movies of all time

It’s probably hard enough being an out-of-work actor without seeing horses score starring roles in great horse-racing movies.

Equines don’t study Method Acting for years or have to schmooze to remind people they’re alive.

They also don’t have to compete against Meryl Streep for awards, and likely lose to her. (Streep probably could play a very convincing horse if she tried. Even a British horse.)

But horse movies have proven enduringly popular. So before the iconic Kentucky Derby will start off this year’s Triple Crown — aka the Tonys, Oscars, and Emmys of horse racing — have a Mint Julep and check out any of the great horse-racing movies we’ve trotted out below.

As you geek out on these fantastic films, don’t forget you can get in on Kentucky Derby action this weekend using the online betting platform TVG. It’s your only option until KY sports betting becomes legal in the future.

No. 1, The Black Stallion (1979)

90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes

The first half is kind of like “Cast Away” if Tom Hanks were a horse and Wilson the volleyball were a kid.

A young boy of about 12, Alec, and his dad are traveling by ship. A roped black horse boards unhappily because horses and boats don’t really go together. That’s likely why Mr. Ed never guest-starred on “The Love Boat.”

During a tremendous storm, Alec frees the horse from its cabin and they go overboard as the ship sinks. The horse swims with Alec on his back to an island. (If only “Jack” from Titanic had had a horse and told Rose there was no room on the horse for her. Payback!)

Alec and the horse slowly become BFFs (Beach Friends Forever). They run along the beach like a human movie couple. They remain best buds after being rescued together and return to normal dry life in Town, USA.

Then Alec and his new pal, ex-jockey Henry played by Mickey Rooney, train Black for racing. So now it becomes kind of like My Fair Lady if Eliza were a horse and if they sang “The Reins in Spain.”

The Black Stallion trivia:

  • Cass-Ole (Black, the horse) wore mane extensions during the film because it had actually been trimmed into a “bridle mane.”
  • Cass-Ole had three stunt horse doubles: Junior, Star, and Fae Jur
  • #64 on AFI’s list of 100 Years…100 Cheers

No. 2, A Day At The Races (1937)

94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes

Worth a watch for the classic Marx Brothers humor but with a caveat because that humor surprisingly segues into a disturbing somewhat racist bit near the end. Yes — different era, maybe not intended as such then, blah blah blah, but still in bad taste when watched with modern eyes.

The Marx Brothers join ranks to help ingenue Margaret O’Sullivan save the sanitorium she inherited from her dad. Hi-jinks ensue, along with some great physical comedy and quick-witted dialogue:

(as Groucho’s date proffers her mink stole to him) “Do you mind?”
“Not at all, I always take the wrap.”
“I’ve never been so insulted in my life.”
“It’s early yet”
“Hold me closer. Closer. Closer.”
“If I hold you any closer, I’ll be in back of you.”

And showing that the more things change, the more things stay the same, there’s this line: “I haven’t seen so much mud-slinging since the election.”

A Day At The Races trivia:

  • Seventh and longest Marx Brothers movie
  • “Hackenbush” was originally supposed to be “Quackenbush.” The name was changed because of possible lawsuits by real doctors named Quackenbush.
  • #59 on AFI’s list of 100 Years…100 Laughs, 2000
  • British rock band Queen named their 1976 album after the movie

No. 3, National Velvet (1944)

Rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes

In her first starring role, a lovely 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor loves horses with a passion she will later feel for actor Richard Burton… each time she marries him.

As Velvet Brown, she lives in a small English village in the 1920s with her warm and loving family, some of whom have American accents. She ultimately falls for one horse whom she christens The Pie (and she falls off him, too, but that’s love.)

Then together with Mickey Rooney, who apparently was to horse movies as Kevin Costner was to baseball films, she trains the Pie to run and jump in England’s Grand National. There she has to dress and look like a boy to serve as Pie’s jockey, so obviously Ron DeSantis would ban this sweet film today.

Don’t Say Hay?

Hollywood, fame, and fortune beckon Grand National winners Velvet and Pie, but unlike pretty much anyone in America then or now, they don’t answer. Velvet chooses Pie’s happiness over her father’s fleeting dreams of Big Money, and they all stay in England.

In an example of art mirroring real life, Elizabeth Taylor fell in love with King Charles, the horse who played Pie, during filming and was gifted him on the film’s completion. Later on, she and another costar — Richard Burton, of course — would fall in love during the filming of Cleopatra. He pretty much gifted himself to her, too.

National Velvet trivia:

  • Won 2 Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Anne Revere) and Best Film Editing
  • Anne Revere, who played Velvet’s mom, was blacklisted because of the McCarthy hearings — and ironically, she was a direct descendant of Paul Revere. The blacklisting interrupted her work for about two decades.
  • King Charles, who played The Pie, is the grandson of horse-racing legend Man O’ War and a cousin of Seabiscuit.
  • A broken back resulting from a fall during the race left Taylor with residual pain for years.

No. 4, Seabiscuit (2003)

78% rating on Rotten Tomatoes

If there’s one thing a movie audience loves even more than an underdog, it’s an under-horse. And Seabiscuit has one of those, as well as plenty of human underdogs.

There’s Jeff Bridges as millionaire auto entrepreneur Charles Howard, shattered when his young son dies in a crash of one of the cars that made him rich.

There’s Seabiscuit himself, undersize grandson of the legendary Man O’War. They relegated him to two-bit claiming races but he rides to the top. There’s Tobey Maguire as jockey Red Pollard, abandoned child of the depression, who rides Seabiscuit’s back to the top.

And there’s Chris Cooper as trainer Tom Smith, a man of few words. And when he uses them, they’re wise enough to stitch on a pillow. And where are the women, you ask? What about the Bechdel test?

Well, there’s really only Elizabeth Banks as Howard’s second wife, who’s never really an underdog. She doesn’t even have an underbite.

Seabiscuit trivia:

  • Gary Stevens, who plays George Woolf, is a real life jockey. He has won nine Triple Crown races, including three Kentucky Derbys.
  • Seabiscuit in real life was the grandson of Man O’ War, as was King Charles who played The Pie in National Velvet.

No. 5, Phar Lap (1983)

88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes

They could have called this Bang the Reins Slowly, because much like that baseball film, this movie breaks your heart right at the top. Turns out someone may have poisoned the beautiful horse. Not being born yet, Putin was not a suspect.

Then we’re back at the beginning of Phar Lap’s days in Australia around 1929 or so. Of course, Phar Lap has one thing in common with other horse movies like Seabiscuit: At first, no one thinks the horse will amount to anything. It’s as if no one in horse movies has ever seen a horse movie.

So he’s dismissed as slight and unimpressive, plus he has warts all over his face. But then, under the loving care of his caretaker or “strapper,” Tommy, Phar Lap blossoms, much like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality.

And then, already beloved by his countrymen, Phar Lap becomes an international star, much like another pretty Australian, Mel Gibson. But without the drunken rants.

Coincidentally, Phar Lap’s owner is played by the actor who played Rachel Greene’s dad on Friends. And he doesn’t believe in the horse any more than he believed in his TV daughter.

Unlike any of the other movies mentioned here, Phar Lap touches on the underbelly of horse racingrace fixing — and it ain’t pretty. But the horses are.

Phar Lap trivia:

  • Phar Lap’s heart was almost twice the average weight for horses.
  • Phar Lap’s six nicknames included Bobby, Big Red, Red Terror, and Wonderhorse
Photo by Associated Press
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Marian Rosin

Marian Rosin is a freelance writer that has written on a variety of topics including publications like Upnest and Psychology Today. Marian brings experience in the gambling sector as the senior copywriter for Isle of Capri casinos.

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