Oscar-Worthy Achievements in Horse Movies

Pop Culture
“War Horse,” “Seabiscuit,” and “The Horse Whisperer” are three horse-related movies that get a shout-out from the America’s Best Racing film critics’ circle.

The 89th Academy Awards arrives Sunday, and horse racing aficionados can revel in the implicit recognition the sport of kings annually receives when journalists and film buffs adopt racing’s handicapping lingo to forecast the night’s winners.

Actual awards for horse movies have been harder to come by, so, in advance of Oscar night, the team at America’s Best Racing came up with some achievements in the field of equine-related celluloid that we believe were overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the first time around and deserve recognition.

Yes, “Ben-Hur” (the original, not the deservedly shunned GGI remake) was honored for its technical achievements in 1959, highlighted by the staging and filming of its iconic chariot race. So too did the classic “National Velvet” take home two Oscars in 1945, for Best Supporting Actress (Anne Revere) and Best Film Editing (Robert Kern). Still, we think there are so many more horse-centric movies that deserved a gold statuette. For your consideration:

Best Cinematography: “Seabiscuit”

With Santa Anita Park, Keeneland, and Saratoga Race Course as film locations for “Seabiscuit,” it’s tough to get any better than that. The close-up shots of the racing scenes are some of my favorite clips ever. I just think director of photography John Schwartzman and crew did a great job of capturing the moments and transporting the audience into the story of Seabiscuit. Although the film didn’t win, it was nominated for best cinematography at the 76th Academy Awards. – Jose Contreras


Best Screenplay: “Let it Ride”

Richard Dreyfuss stars in “Let It Ride” as a cab driver named Jay Trotter who has, as he says, "a very good day" betting at the races. The screenplay is adapted from Jay Cronley's novel "Good Vibes." During the course of one racecard, every race Trotter bets, he wins. His day at the track (filmed at Hialeah Park) is one that we all dream of. His process of picking horses is different every time and it varies from listening to a secret conversation in a taxi to asking for opinions from the people at the track and crossing them out. He  places his bet with the same ticket clerk in order to keep his winning streak going (see Dan’s choice below). Who wouldn’t love to have a day at the races like Jay Trotter? – Jose Contreras


Best Actor: Robert Redford, “The Horse Whisperer”

Robert Redford excels as Tom Booker, a famous horse whisperer determined to help a physically and mentally broken horse (and offer the same help to the horse’s owner, a little girl who was almost killed in a riding accident). Redford based his performance off of real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, and that attention to detail lends Redford’s performance an authenticity that draws viewers into the movie, which he also directed. – Penelope Miller


Best Actress: Gabrielle Anwar, “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken”

OK, I’ll be honest here: “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” is not a great movie; it’s a good movie, but it’s probably not going in the Criterion Collection any time soon. However, Gabrielle Anwar shines as Sonora, a young woman who works as a daredevil rider of the diving horse Lightning. Her portrayal of the real-life Sonora Webster is both inspiring and heartbreaking, and Anwar manages to capture the unique, rare love between a horse and rider and the unshakable trust that bond brings. – Penelope Miller


Best Supporting Actor: Mickey Rooney, “The Black Stallion”

Mickey Rooney’s take on gruff, knowledgeable trainer Henry Dailey made one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite books ever come to life. It’s a movie that still brings tears to my eyes every time I see it, and Rooney’s quiet and commanding performance is a huge part of why I love it so much. I’m not alone, either: Rooney actually garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1979 for his portrayal of Henry Dailey in this movie. – Penelope Miller


Best Supporting Actor: Robbie Coltrane, "Let It Ride"

Not sure he appeared enough in the film to qualify as "supporting," but as the ticket clerk, Coltrane’s scenes are simply epic. His bit at the end of this clip, when the clerk tells Richard Dreyfuss’ Jay Trotter that he's the greatest horseplayer he's ever seen, is both comical and heartwarming. – Dan Tordjman


Best Cinematography: “Secretariat”

I could've gone either way, with either “Secretariat” or “Seabiscuit,” but I went with “Secretariat” because it made the experience of Big Red's extraordinary career (which I missed by about a decade) a lot more real to me. This scene here is a great example of how the film not only takes you back to a race (in this case, the 1973 Belmont Stakes) but also brings to life the emotions and thoughts of all the key players surrounding the horse as the race unfolded. – Dan Tordjman


Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Bridges, “Seabiscuit”

Q: Has Jeff Bridges ever been less than great in a movie, no matter its quality? A: No, he hasn’t (and yes, I’ve seen “Simpatico” – parts of it, anyway). So maybe Bridges was channeling a little bit of his turn in “Tucker: A Man and His Dream” for his portrayal of Seabiscuit’s owner Charles Howard, but it fit perfectly in this A-list Hollywood adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling novel. The allure of horse racing during the Depression – the allure of the sport, period – is best captured in this scene with Bridges as he looks out upon Santa Anita’s glorious grounds and the crowd welcoming Seabiscuit to the post parade. – Patrick Reed


Best Actor: Bill Murray, “St. Vincent”

Let’s just say I approached watching “St. Vincent” with modest expectations and came away really enjoying the movie, due in large part to a number of terrific acting performances by Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, and especially Bill Murray. There was a time when I viewed Murray as not much more than a comedic actor – albeit a very funny one – but the truth is he’s become one of the best actors around with the ability to branch out and bring the best out of a wide range of roles. He was outstanding in the lead role of Vincent MacKenna in “St. Vincent” – whose life in part revolves around betting the races at Belmont Park – as was Lieberher, who played the little boy, Oliver, who befriended Vincent and changed his life. – Mike Curry


Best Supporting Actor (Athlete Division): Gary Stevens, “Seabiscuit”

Even without the Athlete Division qualifier, I stand by this. When it comes to athletes in movies, I have little to no expectations, but Stevens did a fantastic job in his role as George “the Iceman” Woolf in “Seabiscuit.” I remember after the first time I watched it, thinking, “Wow, Stevens knocked it out of the park.” So good was Stevens that he picked up another role in the short-lived HBO series “Luck.” He’s a Hall of Fame jockey first, but he’s also a pretty damned good actor. – Mike Curry


Honorable Mention: Dakota Fanning, “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story”

I’ll probably get mocked for this, but I thought Dakota Fanning was very good as Cale Crane in “Dreamer.”  Look, I agree that there were many cringe-inducing missteps in the movie that would have been easily solved had anyone who had ever witnessed a live race been involved in the screenplay. But it should not discount the fact that Fanning came through with a strong performance. What is kind of sad about the whole thing is that “Dreamer” was inspired by (certainly not based on) a true story and had great potential. But it’s like watching a baseball movie where the lead actor throws a baseball like he has a wet noodle attached to his shoulder. It’s tough to get past the implausibility of the film, but let’s not forget it’s a feel-good Disney movie. I admit I gained a little more appreciation for “Dreamer” and Fanning when my daughter, then 8, really enjoyed it. – Mike Curry


Best Actor (Equine Division): Joey, “War Horse”

Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” was a powerful movie showcasing the bond between horse and human, and it was nominated for six Academy Awards but did not win any of them. The horses that played Joey, the film’s star, certainly would have won Best Equine Actor had it been a category. Joey served as a plow horse in England, a child’s riding companion and, yes, a war horse. The equine acting required to play so many different facets of a horse’s personality within one movie and the story that is revealed would surely have earned “Team Joey” an Oscar had it been an option in 2012. – Christina Moore


Best Picture: “Seabiscuit”

“Seabiscuit” actually was nominated for Best Picture in 2003 as well as six other Academy Awards, but unlike the horse, the movie went winless. However, I still feel that “Seabiscuit” should have won the Oscar for Best Picture over “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” The true story of Seabiscuit had everything you could want in a movie: a compelling underdog storyline with joy and heartbreak, plus an unfathomable comeback and a made-for-Hollywood ending. Not to mention terrific acting. The fact it was nominated in so many categories shows what a great film it was. Couple the storyline with the heart-pounding, glamorous, sometimes seedy setting of horse racing in the Depression era and it’s a no-brainer. “Seabiscuit” is the best racing film to never win Best Picture. – Christina Moore

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