Racing movies: Lads and Jockeys

They are little boys with big dreams. So little that the pitchforks they wield in pre-dawn darkness are bigger than they are; so little that they can barely push the wheelbarrows loaded with manure from the stalls they’ve mucked; so little that when they get off a horse, they are asked whether the tack is too heavy for them to carry.  They are little boys who have left their homes and their families to pursue one dream: to be a jockey.

Benjamin Marquet’s Lads and Jockeys documents a group of teenagers as they follow in the footsteps of the French jockeys who have come before them, attending jockey school, hoping to have what it takes to move beyond being a lad – a groom, hotwalker, exercise rider – to making a living by riding in races on France’s racetracks.

Though Marquet’s father has been riding horses for more than 40 years, Marquet himself had no interest in horses, he confessed via e-mail.  The movie, he said, was his father’s idea.

“My father,” he wrote, “who happens to work in the movie business, came up with the idea of producing a film about horse racing with me as a director. At first the idea didn’t really excite me. Nevertheless, I decided to spend some time in Chantilly and take a closer look. After two days I had completely changed my mind.  The environment was beautiful and I was beginning to understand why my father would wake up at 5 in the morning to go horseback riding.

“After spending a month in Chantilly, learning to ride crazy horses and working in the stables, the movie started to emerge in my mind. I wanted to spend some time with these kids who decided to make a big step in the adult world.”

The film is set at the jockey school that, says Marquet, nearly all French jockeys attend. The boys live in dorms and attend school at the training center; some of them leave to live at the yards of particular trainers.  Juxtaposing images of the boys as boys and the boys as aspiring jockeys, Lads and Jockeys shows both the uncompromising nature of the world they have joined and the nurturing care-taking of the teachers and trainers with whom they work.

The film never lets us forget how young they are. Most of them in their early teens, the boys struggle to wake up when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m.; they flirt with the girls attending the school; they cry when the horses on which they train run off with them.  They play a lot of video games.

But they also try to be the men that they are expected to be, that they aspire to be.  Steve declares confidently early in the movie, acknowledging the difficulties of the life he’s chosen, “I think I’ll make it, personally.”  Later, when his horse refuses to break  during gate school, he hangs his head, his demeanor defeated, professing, “When you love your job, you get on with it,” as though he’s trying to convince himself.

The people in the movie charged with teaching the boys, the men and women who run the stables and the school, are by turns encouraging and demanding, avuncular and pragmatic.   “C’est bien, mon petit,” one repeats. “That’s good, little one.”

At times, the horses seem merely like vehicles: they don’t have names, and there’s no attempt to bring them to life, to personalize them. The horses are the means to the end, or sometimes the obstacle to it, as when they refuse to do as the boys ask, doing more than making the boys look silly: putting their very lives at risk.

But little Flavien, as terrified as he sometimes is, can’t resist: he nuzzles his horses and strokes their heads, even after one has run off with him, even after one nearly kicks him when he tries to pick up its hoof. The scenes with Flavien and his horses are infused with extraordinary tenderness; during one long moment, Flavien cradles a horse’s head, laying repeated kisses on its nose.

The film can move slowly, and it takes a while to form relationships with the boys, to distinguish among them. But when one makes it to the races, when he gets to ride in a race at Chantilly, we realize: they’ve captured our hearts, and we care what happens to them.

Wrote Marquet, “Only a few will actually fulfill their dream. All the others will become lads, working in the stables, riding and taking care of horses to train them. They’ll work every day, summer or winter, waking up at 5 a.m., risking their lives for a very low salary.”

He never lets us forget the danger that lurks every time the boys get on a horse. They are regularly dropped during training; they run around trying to catch their loose horses. One instructor enjoins during morning training, “Stay 100 meters apart in case of a fall. You never know.” The camera rests on his face as he pauses, the enormity of what he is saying dawning on him.

But the danger isn’t enough to deter them, not when they dream of racing glory, not when they achieve those tantalizing moments of oneness with their horses.  As one instructor puts it, encouraging the half-asleep boys on horseback in the early morning light: “Man’s greatest conquest. You’re on horseback.”

Lads and Jockeys open tonight in New York City at Cinema Village and in Chicago on December 16.  Additional screening dates and locations will be posted on the movie’s website as they become available.

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