Jim Wilson is a horseman. He grew up in Pasadena, Calif. and started going to the races at Santa Anita at a very young age. He bought his first horse as soon as he could afford one and over the past 25 years has owned more than a hundred winners; although none of them has won a stakes race.
“They were hard-knocking claimers for the most part,” he says. “I’ve won allowance races and felt like, ‘Wow.’ Elated. But there’s a level above that that I’d love to make it to.”
Wilson may never get to that level in horse racing, but there’s really no shame in that. Being a horseman is something he loves, but it isn’t what he’s best at. What he’s best at is making movies.
Maybe you’ve seen some of them. “The Bodyguard”, “Wyatt Earp”, “The Postman”, “Message in a Bottle”, and in 1990 he made a little western called “Dances With Wolves” that earned him a Best Picture Academy Award.
His latest picture is, much like owning racehorses, a passion project for him. “50 to 1” is the story of Mine That Bird’s improbable victory in the 2009 Kentucky Derby and the colorful team that got him there.
Wilson co-wrote the original script with his girlfriend, Faith Conroy, and self-financed the film’s $9 million budget with about five total investors.
“[Faith] and I were looking for a project to work on together when we came across this story,” Wilson said.
Between his horse racing knowledge and Conroy’s grasp of the dialogue and characters (“She’s from Colorado, she knows cowboy.”), Wilson and Conroy wrote a script that they believe accurately captures the uniqueness of Mine That Bird’s connections and backstory, but most importantly tells the story in the right way.
“It’s a throwback to another time in film,” he said. “This is the kind of sports movie you’d have seen in the 70s and 80s but you just don’t see today. It’s a romp. It’s real and it’s funny.”
Regional 50 to 1 Premieres
March 2 New Mexico
There’s no other way to tell the story of Mine That Bird other than making it a romp, really. Mark Allen, the horse’s owner, and Chip Woolley, the horse’s trainer, met one another when Mark Allen was outnumbered in a bar fight in New Mexico and Woolley decided to step up and get his back. That brawl spawned a friendship that would lead to a professional collaboration that would eventually lead to Woolley travelling to Canada to look for 2-year-old horses to purchase and train. It was there that he eventually found Mine That Bird. And this is to say nothing of the story of jockey Calvin Borel. To call Borel and his life’s story “colorful” would be an understatement. Mixed in with this crowd of New Mexico barroom brawlers, Borel fit right in.
“I spent some time with Calvin Borel and I just knew that I had to tell this story,” Wilson explained.
CALVIN BOREL CELEBRATES AFTER WINNING THE KENTUCKY DERBY ON MINE THAT BIRD
“I can always sense underdog. The Secretariat movie was billed as an underdog story. Secretariat is not an underdog! These guys were authentic underdogs —fun, crazy — there was so much there. Incredible characters! This just doesn’t happen that often.”
Nor does it happen that often that movies about horse racing get made, and on this score Wilson believes that he, too, is an underdog. “I feel like we’re 50 to 1, too.”
When Wilson started pitching the movie, horse-racing pictures weren’t interesting prospects to the big studios. The HBO series “Luck” had just been canceled, “Secretariat” had been a big disappointment to Disney, and sports movies in general were struggling to find big audiences; even “The Blind Side” had a hard time getting made despite being based on a best-selling book.
“Studios do three kinds of movies,” Wilson explains. “Big special-effects movies, animated children’s movies, or genre pictures like horror or action.” None of which was Wilson’s cup of tea.
“This is an original story. That’s rare today,” he said. “It’s all prepackaged stuff. But this is new and fresh. It’s just very different. It’s funny, but gritty. It’s not preachy, not dark. It’s real. It’s a romp.”
The plan for the film’s release is to take it state by state, starting in New Mexico, and almost following Mine That Bird’s path to the Kentucky Derby as the movie heads east. Doing it this way allowed Wilson to get the film out nationwide without spending $30 million for distribution. It’s unorthodox, but then so is driving a Kentucky Derby-winning horse across the country in a trailer hitched to a pick-up truck.
Just like Mine That Bird, Jim Wilson doesn’t need to spend a lot of money to prove to you that what he’s hauling in his truck is the real deal. And when he lets it out to run, that sucker’s gonna romp.
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