"Out of all the things you do in life, there's that one minute that you feel like you're the most important thing in the world because everybody's watching you." – Leo Brock in the movie "Jockey," played by real-life rider Logan Cormier.
Horse racing returns to the silver screen this winter with the release of "Jockey," though with a different focus than blockbuster Hollywood films like "Seabiscuit" and "Secretariat." This time the action is based not on a true-life story and a famous horse, but rather on an aging, ailing rider, hopeful of persisting in the twilight of his profession.
The movie opens Dec. 29 in Los Angeles and New York before a nationwide release sometime in early 2022.
Appropriately, it was in the twilight hours that shooting took place. Captured largely over three weeks at Turf Paradise in Phoenix in early 2020, preceding the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, its setting is often as the day's final rays of sun dip in the Arizona landscape, bathing the characters in glow and shadow.
Directed by Clint Bentley, who co-wrote the film with Greg Kwedar, it stars Clifton Collins Jr. as Jackson Silva, a fictional jockey dealing with aches, broken bones, and the onset of a degenerative neurological disease. Collins also served as executive producer.
Molly Parker and Moises Arias co-star, with Parker as Ruth Wilkes, a trainer of a promising young filly; Arias plays Gabriel Boullait, an inexperienced rider who comes to town claiming to be Silva's son.
"My (late) dad was a jockey," Bentley said. "And I grew up in this world of horse racing, going from track to track and in seeing that life. And (I) felt like there was a gap in movies that had been made about horse racing that didn't really show the life of the jockey and didn't show much of what it felt like to be behind the barns. And so, that was the first kind of process before Greg and I jumped in and started writing and building up a movie from there."
"Jockey" focuses more on the characters' relationships and their interactions in the jockeys' room and backstretch than showing horses regularly thundering down the stretch.
"We're kind of taking them around the backside in a way that they feel like they've really gone on a journey to a world," Bentley said.
It isn't hard to imagine Collins or Arias as jockeys, as they are surrounded by real-life riders acting in the film. Logan Cormier, whose own riding career has been derailed by crime and drug abuse, has the most memorable role as Leo Brock, a character ultimately hospitalized after being unseated during a race. It is one of his lines that is featured in the movie's trailer.
Turf Paradise jockey Scott Stevens also has a minor acting role, and other riders – some active at the time, some retired – make appearances.
Stevens, whose Hall of Fame brother Gary starred as George Woolf in "Seabiscuit," also served as a technical advisor on the film, as did Quarter Horse jockey G. R. Carter and trainer Stacy Campo. Scott Stevens said his primary task was to ensure realism in the movie. He noted his acting role could have been even larger.
"I had a scene where I actually punched the bug boy in the race, in the movie – What the heck’s his name? Moises? – We had a scene where he ran over me in a race. Anyhow, that part got cut out," he said. "Because I said a few foul words when I hit him, I thought, now my grandkids aren't gonna get to watch the movie. But that part came out of it, so that's good."
Scott and Gary Stevens are in select company, seemingly the first brothers to win 5,000 races apiece and act in two Hollywood movies. Both are now retired from riding.
Scott Stevens said filming would primarily take place near sunrise and sunset, positioned outside the hours of racing at Turf Paradise.
"We filmed some of it before (racing), like early in the morning, the scenes in the mornings. The way they did it – I mean, it was low budget, you know, these guys didn't have no fancy equipment," he recalled. "And then they would do some of it after the races because they were really key on the lighting. The sunset had to be just right. And that's basically when we did it. I think we did two days when it was an off day."
With an even more prominent on-screen role than Stevens in the movie is Turf Paradise general manager Vince Francia, who plays Ronnie Langford, a horse veterinarian who X-rays the main character and advises him to see a doctor. That scene also made the trailer.
When first offered the role, Francia said he initially thought filmmakers were just doing it as a gesture of thanks for allowing filming at Turf Paradise. He ultimately accepted the opportunity, and found himself one-on-one with Collins, a seasoned film and television actor, as Bentley filmed.
Francia had never acted.
"Although I suppose I've been a mayor for 16 years of the town of Cave Creek, and I've been with Turf Paradise, oh geez, for 30 years, maybe that could be considered acting," Francia quipped.
Initially, they tried a few takes, following the script, not with the desired result. So they changed things up.
"There's nothing 'Hollywood' about Clifton; he's just so easy to be around," Francia said. "We kind of looked at each other, and we asked Clint, 'Could you just let us – We know what you want. We know what this thing calls for. Just let us ad-lib it, take it from there?' – And so he did, and it took us I think about 10 takes, two hours, and that is the result."
Another result was that Francia received a check for his work from the Screen Actors Guild. "It's framed," he said.
Collins received the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival for his acting in the film. Landing in the festival was "incredible" for exposure and distribution for "Jockey," Bentley said.
"It's propped up so many amazing films from the American independent scene and the world independent cinema," Bentley said of Sundance. "It was always a dream of ours to have a movie play there. We sent a lot of movies over that didn't make it in, and so this one, to not only go to Sundance but then also be picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, which if you're trying to find a distributor for a movie like this, who's going to really take care of it and really get it out to the world and in a really thoughtful way, you couldn't find a better partner than Sony Classics."
Kwedar noted how accommodating Turf Paradise staff and local horsemen were during filming, "opening their world for us."
The choice of Turf Paradise was also unique in that it is not an A-List track like Santa Anita Park or Keeneland, which have previously been used for movies. Turf Paradise, which opened in 1956, is very much a working-class track, and like the movie's main character, shows signs of age.
"Turf Paradise itself, beyond just the axis that was provided, still has that kind of iconic feel of the juxtaposition of its heyday, when old Hollywood stars would fly out on the weekend and would be in their Sunday best, to kind of having its age and character show but still have like, sort of its former glory," Kwedar said.
Francia said he is working to obtain a private showing of the movie for local horsemen, perhaps in March, either at Turf Paradise or at a movie theatre.
Stevens expects those who see the film will like it.
"I think it turned out pretty good. Well, obviously it is because it (made) the Sundance Film Festival," he said. "They told me this is like buying a horse for $5,000 and winning the Kentucky Derby for what they've done with it already."