Since the days of the silent movie the camera has loved horses – Trigger, Champion the Wonder Horse, The Lone Ranger’s Silver; everyone enjoys a good horse movie. Our panel has looked at more than 200 films featuring racehorses and horse racing and come up with 20 of the very best. They include mysteries, heart warming tales of bravery, comedies, even a couple which have won an Oscar or two. So here’s our guide to the Top Twenty Horseracing movies of all time.
1. National Velvet (1944)
A boy, a girl, a horse, the Grand National and two Oscars; it has to be National Velvet at number 1. Starring a young Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, this is a vintage classic and the film that had a generation of girls pestering their dads for a pony. Taylor plays a young girl who believes her troublesome horse has enough ‘oomph’ to win the Grand National and hatches a plot to ride him in the race herself.
2. A Day at the Races (1937)
“Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped” more horsing around from those kings of comedy the Marx Brothers – this time at the racetrack. Another classic and a typically wacky mix where a vet posing as a doctor, a race horse owner, and his friends struggle to help keep a sanatorium open with the help of a misfit racehorse. It’s enough to bring tears to a glass eye.
Based on the true story of Seabiscuit, it tells of a too small horse with a too big jockey, an old cowboy trainer, and a car salesman owner defeating the odds and raising the hopes of a nation in the depression of the thirties. Ten horses shared the role of Seabiscuit and not one of them had an Equity card.
4. Phar Lap (1983)
Get your hankies out for this true rags-to-riches tale of a horse winning the hearts of a nation during the great depression. This time though, it’s the turn of Australia to be cheered up. Overcoming increasing handicapping weights, Phar Lap, wins 37 races including the renowned Melbourne Cup. Not a happy-ever-after ending but a great romp until the final curtain falls.
5. Black Gold (1947)
In this everyday tale of horseracing folk, a boy and his horse are adopted by a kind Indian man (Anthony Quinn) and his wife after the boy’s father is murdered by smugglers. The couple breed their mare to the boy’s horse, fall in with a shady manager, end up losing the mare to him, discover oil on their land and win the Kentucky Derby. Totally believable in every way.
6. Let It Ride (1989)
Richard Dreyfuss plays an amiable compulsive gambler named Trotter (yes Trotter). He promises his wife that his days at the races are over, then goes out the very next weekend and bets his last fifty dollars on a sure thing – and wins. Feeling that he can’t lose, he lets his winnings ride picking winner after winner. So, does he come out on top? You need to watch the movie but let’s just say that his wife…
7. Shergar (1999)
Ian Holm and Mickey Rourke star in this movie which tells the story of Shergar, the champion racehorse who was stolen by IRA terrorists and never seen again. Of course Hollywood prefers a happy ending to the truth, so in the film version of Shergar’s tragic tale the horse is rescued by a young orphan boy and they both live happily ever after.
8. Hidalgo (2004)
A rip-roaring tale following the true story of a turn of the century Pony Express rider and his Mustang as they race against the finest Arabian horses in a 3,300 mile race across the deserts of Arabia. The film is full of stunning scenery and magnificent cinematography.
9. Secretariat (2010)
Made by Disney this film tells the story of one of the greatest American race horses of our time. It centres on the story of Secretariat’s female owner, Penny Chenery, as she deals with dodgy dealing, death, and tax bills and her struggle to win the Triple Crown, setting a new record for the 1973 Kentucky Derby along the way. A record Secretariat still holds to this day.
10. Champions (1983)
The true story of jockey Bob Champion and his horse Aldaniti, starring John Hurt as Champion. Bob famously beat cancer and went on to win the 1981 Grand National. The climax of the film includes live footage of the actual 1983 Grand National. Unfortunately it also includes footage of Royal Mail, the horse that was third to Aldaniti, falling at Becher’s Brook two years later.
11. Broadway Bill (1934)
Directed by Frank Capra, Broadway Bill tells the tale of poor Warner Baxter who is pressured by his nagging wife into working in her family’s paper box factory. Bored, he eventually abandons both his job and his marriage to start a new life as the owner of a racehorse called Broadway Bill. BB goes on to win the big race, but tragedy strikes when he drops dead in the Winner’s Circle. Will Warner have to return to the box factory?
12. The Black Stallion (1979)
A young boy has ambitions of becoming a jockey to the horse he befriended when the ship they were travelling on is tragically sunk. Only he and the Arabian stallion survive and so the tale, which takes us from a desert island to New York and includes a performance by Mickey Rooney as the boy’s trainer, begins.
13. Ruffian (2007)
Made-for-TV movie Ruffian, is set in 1975 and based on the true story of the undefeated legendary racing filly. Unfortunately Ruffian’s story finishes when she suffers a breakdown in a match race at Belmont Park against champion colt Foolish Pleasure and dies. The race caught national attention at the time and was hailed by the press as a “battle of the sexes” – one the ladies didn’t win.
14. On The Nose (2001)
Filmed in Dublin, Robbie Coltrane plays a janitor with a gambling problem who needs to raise money to send his daughter to Trinity College. Finding an aboriginal head in a jar (as you do) he soon discovers that the head is able to predict the winner of horse races. A superb cast and a real ripping yarn; this is a great horse racing movie.
15. Charlie Chan at the Racetrack (1936)
When a friend of Charlie’s is discovered kicked to death by his own racehorse on board a Honolulu-bound liner, the detective discovers foul play and an international gambling ring. All very tongue-in-cheek and Charlie is as inscrutable as ever.
16. Dick Francis: Twice Shy (1989)
One of a series of made-for-TV movies penned by former Grand National jockey Dick Francis. When a computer programmer and part-time mountaineer dies after his safety line is cut a mystery unfolds. Could his death be something to do with the computer programme he has written which allows you to pick the winning horse 65% of the time? Well, what do you think?
17. First Saturday in May (2008)
Real life horsey joy and heartbreak as this all-action documentary follows six diverse trainers as they jockey for position along the 2006 Kentucky Derby trail. Tears and tantrums, beer and bravado, even a few laughs as 40,000 foals are whittled down to the 20 who make it into the race.
18. Hot to Trot (1988)
We’ve all had the trots at one time or another and in this comedy John Candy plays the voice of a horse, Don, who not only talks and gives hot investment tips but also goes on to win the big race and get the filly. Silly but entertaining, you’ll laugh until you are hoarse.
19. The Rocking Horse Winner (1949)
Spooky D.H. Lawrence tale of a young boy who is given a rocking horse for Christmas and soon learns that each time he rides it he’s able to pick the winning horse at the races. He rides his horse too hard to pick the Derby winner for his greedy mother, wins £80,000, then dies in her arms. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
20. International Velvet (1978)
We started with a classic and finish with its not so classic seventies continuation. Tipping a passing nod to National Velvet this film sees National Velvet’s heroine all grown up and aunt to young orphan Tatum O’Neil. There’s not much racing in this movie but plenty of horses as Tatum goes on to help Britain win the three day event at the Olympics.
David Fox developed a love of horseracing after watching his first Grand National as a child. Today David writes for numerous sporting websites and portals in the United Kingdom.