Paul Wagner describes his documentary Thoroughbred: Born To Run as “horse racing 101.” He set out to make a film for people who, as he put it, “maybe watch the Derby, and that’s all they know about racing.”
He planned a movie that would show various elements of the industry, that would explain racing and feature the Derby, but that would also offer glimpses into the worlds of breeding and of sales; of the sport’s history and culture; of its international roots. And as much as he wanted to make a racing movie and not just a Derby movie, the Louisville native knew one thing.
“I knew,” he said, “that we had to get the film on PBS, and it had to be the week of the Derby. It’s the only time people are paying attention to racing.”
An Academy Award winner, Wagner grew up in the Louisville suburbs, but his father grew up a block from the Churchill Downs backstretch, and Wagner recalls the stories his father told him about going to the track as a child.
“This was back probably in 1930’s, 40’s,” Wagner recalled. “My father would describe how he and his buddies would go over to the track, and the people who worked on backside would cut a hole in the fence and charge them a nickel to get in.”
The film features various voices from the industry: Sheikh Mohammed and Arthur Hancock (right) play prominent roles, but Wagner also captures the voices that we don’t often hear: Freddie Winston, a trainer and former groom talks about what it was like to work on the Churchill backstretch, and we meet his mother, who worked in the track kitchen. She, too, tells the story of kids sneaking in through the fence.
Wagner takes care to include the social, economic, historical, and cultural forces that have shaped racing. “A lot of the films I’ve made deal with aspects of American culture, society, and history,” he explained. “Horse racing is incredibly rich, especially the backside culture, top to bottom: the people who own, the people who ride, the people who train, the people who hotwalk. I find everyone to be so colorful, and I tried to capture that in the film, for people who don’t really know anything about racing. I wanted to do what my dad got to do: I wanted to open that hole in the fence and show American what this world is like.”
While Thoroughbred is infused with racing romance, it doesn’t shy away from the questions troubling the industry: the decline in handle, controversy over medications, breakdowns. Wagner said that as he made the movie, he began to hope that it could help focus people in racing on what’s great about racing.
“It’s a great sport,” he said enthusiastically. “But there are certain economic realities that are going to force sport to contract. It’s going to be tough economically, but I’d like to see the sport come through the other end and be smaller and purer, and as wonderful as it’s been in the hundreds of years of its history.”
The film may be made for people unfamiliar with racing, but those who already love the sport will find plenty in which to revel, including beautiful photography, familiar faces of trainers and jockeys and writers and commentators, and memorable horses. Wagner follows the springtime fortunes of I Want Revenge, Imperial Council, and Desert Party, filming their prep races, with particular emphasis on that year’s Wood Memorial, bringing us to the 2009 Kentucky Derby.
But the Derby doesn’t quite take over the movie, and nor does the film’s educational purpose. Thoroughbred is intellectual, unabashedly and effectively so, but the sheer beauty of the Thoroughbred isn’t neglected. The film never verges into the mawkish, but it doesn’t hesitate to show iconic images that exemplify why so many of us love horses and horse racing.
Early in the film, we go with Cerise, one of Hancock’s mares from Stone Farm, to Three Chimneys, where she’ll be bred to Point Given. And as the film reaches its conclusion, we go back to Cerise; a title tells us that it’s been 11 months and 22 days since she was bred.
We are in the stall with her moments after she’s given birth: the cinematography is simultaneously unforgiving and caressing, as we see, so close, the wet and trembling coat of the newborn filly; her wet, steaming body; her alert eyes.
She tries to stand up…she gets there, and she falls. And she tries again, and Cerise is there, nudging her up on those little, little legs as she licks her foal.
And the narrator says, almost reverently, as we see the mare and foal the next day in the paddock:
“Less than an hour after birth, she can stand. In less than one day, she can run.”
Thoroughbred: Born To Run is airing on PBS this week; in the New York area, it will be on WNET (channel 13) on Wednesday night at 10 pm. Check local listings for when it will be on in your area.
For more on Paul Wagner and Thoroughbred, particularly its focus on the Wood Memorial, please see my post at BelmontStakes.com; while you’re there, check out my fellow Belmont bloggers, Jenny Kellner, Ernie Munick, and Andy Serling.