The trailer for “50 to 1”, unlike the great horse racing movies "Seabiscuit" and "Secretariat", puts the emphasis not on the horse but on the wacky bandits who somehow managed to get Shrek’s donkey to the Derby. The trailer shows the transformation of a once-bipedal Chip Woolley triangulate his lower limbs. It shows the meeting of Woolley and Mark Allen, one of the principle owners of Mine That Bird. Allen famously came to Woolley’s aid in a barroom fight. Joy to the world.
Much was made about how Woolley drove Mine That Bird to the Derby himself. This made every reporter’s head explode in the media room after the 2009 Derby. Woolley was getting pretty annoyed by the end. He said he had a nice truck. It wasn’t like he pedaled a rickshaw from New Mexico.
50 to 1 has the makings of a modern-day bromance. The dominant image on the promotional poster isn’t of the horse, but of Woolley. But really, the undercurrent of the whole story is the fate of a sport. Horse racing is a long shot and far from an overlay too. Horse racing is Mine That Bird: 50 to 1 and having a hard time winning another race.
Here’s the description as IMDB would have you read it: A misfit group of New Mexico cowboys find themselves on the journey of a lifetime when their crooked-footed racehorse qualifies for the Kentucky Derby. Based on the inspiriting true story of Mine That Bird, the cowboys face a series of mishaps on their way to Churchill Downs, becoming the ultimate underdogs in a final showdown with the world’s racing elite.
People do love an underdog story. This wasn’t so much an underdog story, but a fluke, but maybe that’s all underdog stories at their core. Do you really expect Average Joe’s to beat Globo Gym in a best of seven series in dodge ball? Let's be real here.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a recognizable actor in the film. I only knew Skeet Ulrich, who plays the handle-bar-mustachioed Woolley, from “Scream” in 1996. He’s been in 33 other projects as a middling actor. William Devane, playing Leonard Doc Blach, is the most accomplished of the cast, spending most of his time in television, but also playing one mean presidential role in “The Dark Knight Rises”, a man after my heart.
The Mine That Bird story, or, at the very least, the year of the story took place, was a year I was deeply embedded in several narratives. I went to the Derby on my own dime as the paper I was working for told me not to go. Pish posh. I stood in the winner’s circle to watch the Derby and along came this pony-sized horse with 2007’s Derby-winning jockey in the irons with a grin on his face wider than a horse’s rump.
Mine That Bird sneaked through on the fence and, contrary to what Borel later told reporters, he pointed his whip right at my heart, not his fiancées, as he galloped past all the blue bloods. I’d be fired two weeks later and following a filly that would win more than one race after that first weekend in May. I’d also be following Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, neighbors in the Saratoga Stakes Barn, sired by the same Birdstone, but couldn’t look more different. Brothers, sort of.
I witnessed the sneaky exodus of Mine That Bird leaving Saratoga at 2 AM on a warm, star-lit night after the Travers (which he scratched from due to a throat problem). The only sound you could hear was the groaning Brookledge van and Woolley’s crutches clicking down the shedrow with Mine That Bird patiently walking by his side.
“Seabiscuit”, the movie based on the book, had a star cast and drew in $148,336,445 (this on an $87 million budget) at the box office. “Secretariat” ($60,251,371 on a $35 million budget), the movie based loosely on the book, also a star cast, was also a success. You’d think this country has a hunger for all things horse racing. Not a fraction of those people will set foot on a racetrack. Many of those people don’t realized the greater racing world beyond the Derby and that’s one of the great many failures of the horse racing biz.
What’s the over-under on what “50 to 1” brings in? I’d set it $30 million.
Still, somehow, against all odds, horse racing movies keep getting green lit, people keep watching them. I keep watching them. They’re the most immersive horse racing experience. Maybe if the industry can find a way to make the dozens of races a day feel as immersive as a movie, it has the potential to be something worth following and, ultimately, worth gambling on.
But maybe why the movie’s do so well is people get to watch them in the dark, a guilty pleasure, out of the light.