Once upon time, horse racing had a respectable and acclaimed presence on the silver-screen. Moreover, it was a cinematic subject matter that was as versatile as it was visually appealing. From the broad comedy of the Marx Brother’s A Day At The Races to the underdog drama of Elizabeth Taylor breakthrough picture National Velvet, horse racing was hitting all the right notes in Hollywood. However, aside from a small resurgence in 2003 with Seabiscuit being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, this once artistically and economically lucrative sub-genre has all but been lost from the mainstream film scene in the 21st century.
These days, horse racing films are often low-budget, formulaic and stale, which may explain why so many of them are released straight to DVD or at low-key film festivals. A perfect example of such a bland horse racing film is Sunday Horse.
Directed by Oscar winner Vic Armstrong and based on the inspiring true story of rider Debi Connor, who came back from serious injury to become the USA’s Champion Horse Jumper, Sunday Horse does have both talent and strong source material going for it. Moreover, the film features a variety of cult stars – including Star Trek’s William Shatner, Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames and The Terminator’s Linda Hamilton – and therefore has some acting credentials for those versed in cinema’s varied history.
However, despite these promising elements, Sunday Horse is yet another bland re-tread of previously successful formulas of the sub-genre. Although slightly reductive, considering the amount of previous horse racing films that have utilised the ‘true story of an underdog’ approach, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the source material.
Debi Connor, having had a successful career in horse jumping, misjudged and fell during the final fence at the City League International Show Jumping Team Finals. Both she, and her horse Hiberia, were severely injured and written-off as never being able to compete again. Needless to say, they both did and both met and exceeded their previous successes.
So far, so good. Many horse competition films have been based on similar narratives, including National Velvet which was based loosely on the early life of Laurian, Comtesse d’Harcourt. Moreover, contemporary trailblazer Seabiscuit utilised its real life subject matter to excellent results. The problem with Sunday Horse is not only does it not build upon the foundations created by these modern and contemporary classics, respectively, but actively erodes them. Everything is played with a serve amount of sentimentality and each setback and subsequent overcoming is so heavily handed and signposted that Sunday Horse is not so much a one horse race as a race straight to the bottom of the barrel.
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This is upsetting considering that, in the UK in particular, there is a huge and passionate fan-base for horse racing. One only need look at the online presence of those searching for Cheltenham tips, the Cheltenham Festival being a prestigious horse racing, jumping and betting event held annually in March, to see there is an international audience there for movies based around this subject. Moreover, the $2 million that was paid to promote Seabiscuit’s Oscar campaign suggests that studios, at least recently, were willing to invest in the subject matter.
The issue is that films like Sunday Horse, which are dully filmed and unimaginatively constructed, are naturally discarded by horse racing fans. Therefore, movie studios interpret this as an issue with the subject matter, rather than the implementation of it, and subsequently pump less money into the genre. Which, as one can imagine, creates a vicious circle as destructive as the final loop that Debi Corner made herself all those years ago.