The last week in July revealed tales of the great and the horrible for horse racing. The great was the release of Seabiscuit, a film that is that true rarity’a realistically good horse movie. In fact, I’ll call it the best horse movie since The Black Stallion. (Yes, Spirit was excellent, but it was animated.) The horrible was the death of Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, apparently in a Japanese slaughterhouse at age 19.
I’m not going to participate in the Japan-bashing going on in some quarters, because it’s unfair to criticize other cultures that don’t share our own values. But such a champion’the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and 1987 Horse of the Year’deserved far, far better than that ignominious end. Sadly, his performance in the breeding shed didn’t come close to his performance on the track, and his victories and the impeccable temperament described by his Japanese groom weren’t enough to spare him from the computations of the calculator.
Ferdinand’s loss should be yet another wake-up call to the leaders of Thoroughbred racing. Numerous organizations and individuals across the country are making valiant efforts to find new careers and homes for the thousands of geldings and mares who wash out each year. But stallions are tough to place because they are, well, stallions.
Unfortunately, Thoroughbred breeders seem unable or unwilling to accept that sporthorse breeders would love to have access to some of the best stallions. No, that $15,000 or $50,000 stud fee won’t fly, but sport horse breeders would pay real money for affordable access to a horse with the conformation, quality, and pedigree of a Ferdinand. Whether bred to another Thoroughbred or crossed on a warmblood or draft-cross mare, the odds have to improve on producing a horse with more generosity, jump and stride than most horses. Spectacular Bid came to the sport horse world in the twilight of his life, and I’d bet we’ll see memorable offspring of his in a few years.
Thankfully, Seabiscuit is a warmly disparate contrast, if only because trainer Tom Smith was one of those wonderful, old-time horsemen with a gift for animals. As he says several times, “You don’t throw away a whole life just because it’s banged up a little.” The movie’which claimed the No. 5 spot in total weekend gross but the No. 1 spot in per-screen gross because it showed on fewer than half the theaters of the other top five’is, I’m glad, more about the horse than the book is. But it still places the wide appeal of the small, crooked-legged, big-hearted race horse from California in the Great Depression’s context.
The racing scenes are a primary reason Seabiscuit is exceptional. They’re remarkably realistic and, through exceptional camera work, give the best sense of Thoroughbred speed I’ve ever seen. And the continuity is remarkable. As you know from reading our June 27 article, the directors used nine different horses to play Seabiscuit, and I couldn’t tell when they switched from one to another. And the acting debut of jockey Gary Stevens (he’s a natural!) and the riding of actor Toby Maguire were both very impressive.
I saw Seabiscuit in a theater full of horse people as a benefit for the Morven Park and Oatlands equestrian centers in Leesburg, Va., one of dozens of horse-related fund-raisers that greeted opening night. Many in the crowd were steeplechase owners, trainers and jockeys, but the theater still erupted in cheers for Seabiscuit’s races’and we all knew he’d win. Seabiscuit causes that kind of emotion, the reason I say it’s the best horse movie since The Black Stallion. Go see it.