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10 Horse Racing Movies Based On A True Story (From Phar Lap To Kiwi)

Horse racing has, for many years, been a source of great delight – and for the lucky ones, money – for many people. There is a great deal more to horse racing than just the winners crossing the finish line, or the sad moments where a horse falls and has to retire or worse. There is a host of people involved, from the breeders to the trainers to the jockeys who exercise the horses, as well as the jockey who rides the winner to glory.

There have been several well known, notable racers and famous horse riders and their stories have captured the hearts of millions. Making their stories into a film is a way of preserving their memory, and of spreading the story to a wider audience. Here is a selection of horse racing movies based on a true story, for when you have a quiet afternoon and want something good and heartwarming to watch.

Phar Lap (1983)

Based on the true story of a race horse who captured the hearts of the Australian public in the 30s. It follows the life and racing career of Phar Lap, who was bought as an underweight, wart-ridden colt and was described as “a cross between a sheep dog and a kangaroo” despite his excellent breeding. Phar Lap goes on to form a strong bond with his strapper Tommy Woodcock, who trains him to come from behind to win his races. An attempt is made on Phar Lap’s life in 1930, where someone tries to shoot him in the street, after which he and Woodcock go into hiding, and emerge just in time to win the Melbourne Cup. The film culminates with Woodcock being promoted to Phar Lap’s trainer, because of their strong relationship, and Phar Lap winning the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico. He dies shortly after this, in suspicious circumstances.

Secretariat (2010)

This is a Disney film starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich, and tells the story of Penny Chenery, who takes over a racehorse stables from her ailing father, despite having no knowledge of this male-dominated world. She goes on to produce Secretariat, who becomes the first Triple Crown winning horse for a quarter of a century. Trolley Boy, who plays most of the appearances of Secretariat in the film, is actually Secretariat’s great-great grandson!

Seabiscuit (2003)

Loosely based on the real-life story of Seabiscuit, a small and overlooked racehorse, this film portrays his rags-to-riches climb to fame and fortune. We hear of his bond with his jockey, Red Pollard (played by Toby Macguire) who was chosen to be Seabiscuit’s jockey because the brawling Red’s temperament is similar to the feisty Seabiscuit. The pair win many races together, before. Charles S Howard (Jeff Bridges), the owner of Seabiscuit, tries to secure a race with New York tycoon Samuel Riddle and his top race horse War Admiral. Eventually a race is agreed, but Red breaks his leg and has to allow another jockey to ride. This new pair also win, because Red has given away the secret of getting Seabiscuit head to head with the other horse so he can “get a good look at him” which fires him up enough to win. The last race is at Santa Anita, where Seabiscuit surges from last place to win the race. The film was highly acclaimed and won two awards and was nominated for many more.

Champions (1984)

Based on the life and career of Bob Champion (played by John Hurt), this 80s gem tells the story of Champion who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1979. He had to undergo chemotherapy and have his diseased testicle removed, then went on to win the 1981 Grand National, riding Aldaniti. The film also stars Edward Woodward, and Aldaniti plays himself. John Irvin was nominated for a Golden Bear award for this film, while the director John Hurt won an award at the Evening Standard British Film Awards.

Shergar (2008)

Based on the real-life abduction of Shergar, an up and coming racehorse worth a small fortune, this film drifts away from being totally true to life when Shergar is rescued by stableboy Tim Walsh (in real life Shergar was abducted by the IRA and held to ransom, which was never paid in an attempt to stop more high profile racehorses being targeted. Shergar’s remains have never been found). Although it is not based entirely in fact, the ending of this film is considerably happier than what actually happened!

Ruffian (2007)

This is an American television film based on the life and career of Ruffian, a Thoroughbred filly who went undefeated until her death in 1975, in a race against Foolish Pleasure, the Kentucky Derby winner. This race was televised and shocked a nation before being made into a film. The film stars Laura Bailey, Sam Shepard and Frank Whaley, and was directed by Yves Simoneau.

Hidalgo (2004)

Based on the legendary American distance rider Frank Hopkins, this film follows Hopkins’ journey on his famous mustang Hidalgo, and stars Viggo Mortensen, Zuleikha Robinson and Omar Sharif. In 1890 Hopkins and Hidalgo are part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where they are name as “the world’s greatest endurance horse and rider”. Wealthy Sheikh Riyadh asks the show to stop using that phrase, or ask the rider to prove himself in the “Ocean Of Fire” – an annual 3,000 mile race across the Najd desert. Conditions are gruelling and the competition is fierce, but Hopkins comes from behind to win the race, despite nearly dying of dehydration and considering shooting Hidalgo to prevent his suffering. The film made $108.1 million worldwide, and John Fusco the screenwriter won a Golden Spur award for the film.

50 to 1 (2014)

Based on the racing life of Mine That Bird, 50 to 1 tells the story of a group of New Mexico cowboys who are elated when their undersized Thoroughbred qualifies for the Kentucky Derby. The cowboy are the undisputed underdogs of the film, and you will find yourself cheering them on as Mine That Bird goes on to win the Kentucky Derby in a major upset as the odds were 50 to 1. Calvin Borel was the jockey who rode the real life Mine That Bird in the Derby, and he plays himself in the film. Jim Wilson directed it, and other stars include Skeet Ulrich, Christian Kane and William Devane.

Dreamer (2005)

Starring Kurt Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Elisabeth Shue and Dakota Fanning, this heartwarming film follows a father and a daughter who find that an injured racehorse helps them repair their failing relationship. Cale (Dakota Fanning) falls in love with a race horse that her father is determined to sell and tries to run away on it. Chasing them in his jeep, her father Ben realises that this horse is startlingly fast, and decides to enter her into a race. Unfortunately the race is a claiming race so the horse is taken away. Ben realises at a parent teacher night, reading a story that his daughter has written, how good for their family the horse actually was, so he decides to buy her back. Dakota Fanning won a Young Artist Award for her role in the film.

Kiwi (2018)

Kiwi, starring Nick Blake and Alison Bruce, tells the story of a race horse who captured Australasian hearts by being the only horse to win the Wellington Cup and the Melbourne Cup in the same year. Kiwi was originally used for mustering, and went on to defy expectations by being a stunning race horse despite these origins. Kiwi used three different horses for the title role, which was filmed in and around Auckland. The film was directed by Thomas Robbins, who worked as an actor before getting behind the scenes as a director.

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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