If you are a horse racing fan, turning down these movies would be absurd. There are not that many non-fiction movies with horse racing as a focus, but this shortlist has some real gems.
Here are some real-life dramas that will never lose their charm. They are all stories of hustle, of persistence, of real struggles, and of well-deserved victories. They are stories of some of the greatest races in history
Even if you are not into horse racing, watch these for all the drama, action, and inspiration.
1. Phar Lap (1983)
You can randomly pick a horse racing fan and ask them about their favorite racing movie, and there is a high chance they will mention Phar Lap.
Phar Lap was an icon during the early years of the Great Depression (around the 1930s). He won so many races that betting organizers tried to shoot him. However, like most extraordinary achievers, he did not start with a lot of success.
Phar Lap was foaled in New Zealand and was neither known in the horse communities nor came from a reputed pedigree. A down-on-his-luck trainer in Australia, Harry Telford, requested his owner to purchase Phar Lap on impulse.
When Phar Lap arrived in Australia, the owner, Davis, was so disappointed that he refused to even pay for the horse’s training. Telford, however, agreed to train him for free and get 2/3 of the prize money if the horse won. As luck would have it, Phar Lap did not place in his first four races.
Telford did not give up, however, and trained him continuously. His determination and the love of Phar Lap’s stableboy Tommy Woodcock gave results when Phar Lap started winning every race. He won 37 out of his next 47 races (14 of which were continuous).
Phar Lap then led a glamorous life—he traveled around the world, had death threats, and won the biggest and most famous races. However, in 1932, two weeks after winning one of the richest races in North America, he was dead. The reason is not known, neither does it come out in the movie, but people suspect that he was murdered by arsenic poisoning.
Even though you now know the story of Phar Lap, the movie is worth watching. It captures the bond that grows between the trainer and the horse with so much perfection. It is a touching and heartfelt movie that will make you fall in love with horses even more. For all those who cringe at emotional dramas, the non-fictional journey of Phar Lap is truly inspiring and will unearth a side of you that you never knew you had.
Watch the trailer here.
Fun Fact About Phar Lap
There are two versions of the movie: an Australian version and an American version. The Australian one opens with the death scene, and the movie is narrated in flashback. The American movie does not have the opening death scene, so the final end is much more dramatic.
2. Champions (1984)
Another non-fiction movie, Champions narrates the story of Bob Champion, a British steeplechase jockey. Bob Champion was a successful jockey whose life turned upside down when he found out that his bruise from a racing fall was cancerous.
Initially, he did not understand the seriousness of the bruise, but months of chemotherapy and drugs awaited him. Being sick made him weak; he could barely walk, but his dreams were still strong. As you can guess by now, his passion made him fight hard and recover enough to ride horses again. But it would not be such a famous story if that was all.
When Bob was ill, his favorite horse, Aldaniti, also suffered a severe injury. A man just recovered from cancer. A horse that was still suffering from a bad accident. An upcoming race which was not just an ordinary race, but one of the most difficult races to enter.
The story of Champions uncovers the journey of both the jockey and the horse, including their painful suffering, their punishing training, and their sweet victory.
The story is so dramatic that if you did not know that this was non-fiction, you would probably comment on the wild imagination of the writer. If you are one of those people who enjoys watching the underdog go and win big against all the odds, this is the movie for you. For those who are not fans of drama, watch the movie for all the exciting scenes and the slow-motion horse jumps and races.
Watch the trailer here.
Fun Fact About Champions
The horse, Aldaniti, portrayed himself in the movie.
3. Seabiscuit (2003)
In a lot of ways, Seabiscuit is just like Phar Lap, yet it made it on this list for several reasons. Firstly, the movie cost a whopping $87 million back in 2003. You can imagine the quality of the cinematography. Secondly, the critics loved the performances and the direction in this movie. This movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Lastly, Phar Lap was set in Australia and Seabiscuit is set in the US. Similar stories, yet so many stark differences. You have to watch both movies to really understand the sentiments toward horse racing in different countries.
Seabiscuit is the story of three men: a jockey, an owner, and a trainer. Charles Howard, the owner, was a wealthy car maker. He was trying to rebuild his life after the unfortunate death of his only child and his divorce. With Marcela, his second wife, he wants to get into horse racing.
Tom Smith, the trainer, had a natural gift of spotting the strength of a horse. Charles and Tom teamed up, and Tom chose Seabiscuit for Charles. Seabiscuit was a very unconventional choice because, in spite of belonging to a very reputed pedigree, he was small at fifteen and had a slight limp.
Considering the weakness of the horse, Tom and Charles had trouble finding a jockey who would ride Seabiscuit. When Tom watched John Red, a jockey, fight with his stablemates, Tom was convinced that he was the perfect fit for Seabiscuit and managed to rope him in.
The three men began their journey to race Seabiscuit, and failed in their first 17 races. However, the 18th race turned their lives around. Seabiscuit started winning and went on to become one of the most popular horses in American history.
Watch the trailer here.
Fun Fact About Seabiscuit
In 1940, Seabiscuit became a ranch horse in Ridgewood Ranch. He had over 50,000 visitors in his retirement and sired 108 foals.
4. Secretariat (2010)
Secretariat is a Disney movie that narrates the true story of a great thoroughbred racehorse. Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973. At first glance, this might not seem like a movie-worthy victory. However, before Secretariat, no other horse had won the Triple Crown for 25 years.
The movie also covers the story of Penny and Lucien. Penny was an ordinary housewife and mother who agreed to take over her father’s stable. She had no prior knowledge of horse racing, but this ordinary woman showed extraordinary strength in navigating her star horse through a man-dominated sport.
Lucien had been training horses for her family for years, but just when he started looking forward to his retirement, Penny roped him in to train Secretariat. Together, they embarked on a winning journey and went on to win the Triple Crown.
As one would expect from a Disney movie, Secretariat is a family feel-good movie with a heart-warming storyline.
Watch the trailer here.
Fun Fact About Secretariat
The racing scene of the main race (the Preakness) is from the actual historical footage.
5. Hidalgo (2004)
The Ocean of Fire is a 3,000 mile survival race across the Arabian Desert. For several years, the race only featured the finest Arabian horses. Purebred Arabians which were owned by the most royal families were the only participants.
In America, a guy called Franklin Hopkins rode his horse Hidalgo in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. They were promoted as the “world’s greatest endurance horse and rider.” In 1890, a wealthy sheik challenged them to either participate in the Ocean of Fire race or stop calling themselves the greatest. There was a lot of drama around this, but they were allowed in the race eventually.
The competition was fierce. If the distance and the race conditions weren’t problematic enough, Franklin and Hidalgo also faced strong opposition from the Arabs who were determined not to let a foreigner win.
Frank and Hidalgo reached a breaking point towards the end of the race, and Frank even considered shooting Hidalgo to stop his suffering. However, he continued and returned to the US. Once back home, he purchased a herd of horses and set them free.
This movie narrates the story of the duo, presents a beautiful arabic theme, and displays a lot of emotions around the race, the competition, and the bond between Franklin and Hidalgo. It is not a conventional horse race, but this is what makes it even more intriguing.
Watch the trailer here.
Fun Fact About Hidalgo
When they were filming the start of the race, many horses started fighting each other. It was one of the most difficult scenes to shoot.
Some More Mention-Worthy Movies
While we picked the top five most loved movies, here are some more that will also make for a good watch. If you love horses as much as we do, you will not get tired of watching the same genre each weekend. Here are some more recommendations:
- The Sting (1973)
- Derby Day (1952)
- Saratoga (1937)
- Dark Horse (2015)
- Murphy’s Stroke (1980)
- Let It Ride (1989)
- The Killing (1956)
This list of movies will definitely not disappoint a lover of horse racing.
“Jockey” about a journeyman rider at Turf Paradise.