Film Review: ‘50 to 1’

50 to 1 Review

This fact-based buddy movie about 2009 Kentucky Derby longshot keeps the cliches coming.

The story of 2009 Kentucky Derby standout Mine That Bird follows in the hoofprints of other equine heroes, but while the saga of “Seabiscuit” was suffused in Americana, and “Secretariat” leaned on the success of a pioneering woman in the sport, “50 to 1” has less grandiose ideas: It’s more of a bawdy buddy movie about the horse’s trainer, Chip Woolley, and owner, Mark Allen (who exec produced), with a bit of slapstick thrown in. Call it “Smokey and the Bird,” if you will, and keep the cliches coming, barkeep. Odds for success at the box office are a bit longer than the title is offering.

Still, the fact-based film’s timing is excellent (though the events it chronicles are perhaps a bit too recent to mask the ending), with its official opening scant days after the running of the upcoming Preakness, where Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome has a shot at making the Triple Crown relevant. Producer/director/co-writer Jim Wilson (a producer on “Dances With Wolves”) is practically placing a bet on that race here, with a film that touches on many of the key themes of this year’s Derby winner.

Like Chrome, Mine That Bird came to the big race from a small stable out West — Double Eagle Ranch, in Roswell, N.M. — which paid far less than the going rate for a Derby contender. We’re introduced to the principals in their rodeo days as they meet cute in a barroom brawl in which Allen (Christian Kane, TV series “Leverage”) is getting the snot beaten out of him by a group of men, and Woolley (Skeet Ulrich, “Jericho”) comes to his rescue.

Ten years later, Woolley is a down-on-his-luck horse trainer, and Allen, having made a fortune in oil in Alaska, is breeding quarter horses. Woolley drops by to ask him for work, and is hired on the spot. Almost immediately, Allen gets a call offering him a good rate on a thoroughbred that’s been mopping up the competition in Canada, and he sends Woolley to take a look.

In “Seabiscuit,” Chris Cooper played a trainer who practically knew what the animal was thinking, and devised a number of clever strategies to get the most out of him; in “50 to 1,” Woolley talks to Mine That Bird (actually Sunday Rest, which frequently does tricks) and feeds him treats. As in “Seabiscuit,” the horse is undersized, and its trainer discovers it runs better when it sees competition ahead of it. Here, though, there’s less actual racing and a lot more tequila.

As Mine That Bird loses race after race under Woolley’s tutelage, Allen’s not-so-silent partner Doc Blach (William Devane, convincing) presses for his ouster. But Allen is fiercely loyal, especially to a good drinking buddy, and Bird’s longshot entry in the Derby — thanks to the horse’s success in Canada — offers the trainer one last chance to redeem himself.

The picture tries to establish a relationship between Woolley and a female exercise rider (Madelyn Deutch) assigned to help him after he breaks his leg in a motorcycle accident, but the pacing is a bit off and the chemistry between Ulrich and Deutch never really clicks. Yet, the movie’s second furlong, including events at the Derby, is better than the first, in large part due to the filmmakers’ big score — getting Mine That Bird jockey Calvin Borel to play himself. Not only does Borel prove adept at slapstick, his character is more compelling than the leads (though Ulrich and Kane, who played kin in TV miniseries “Into the West,” are amiable enough company). The jockey’s scenes — while changing the film’s focus — add insight into the big race.

It’s at the Derby that the pic’s frequent fish-out-of-water theme pays off best (a particularly sly dagger comes when the women of the New Mexico contingent show off their “homemade” wide-brimmed hats to the horrified blue-bloods), making it clear that movies with 1% themes are no longer targeted to audiences in blue states only. Elegant white-haired trainer and owner Bob Baffert played to a T by Bruce Wayne Eckelman, is used to excellent effect as an iconic foil.

The climactic race, featuring actual footage of Borel’s ride over the muddy track at Churchill Downs, needs no guilding, though the film is eager to supply it. Nevertheless, an overhead shot that fully serves up the lightning strike of Mine That Bird’s stretch run is impossibly powerful.

Editing and pacing of the race is better than in the rest of the film, which might otherwise have trimmed its 110-minute running time. New Mexico locations look appropriate. Branding is not uncommon, though it never touches animal flesh. “50 to 1” makes a rather calculated play near the finish for the faith-based audience, enabled by clips of a teary-eyed Borel. In movies, as in horse racing, it’s never a bad idea to hedge your bet.

Film Review: ‘50 to 1’

Reviewed online, May 11, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 MIN.


A Ten Furlongs release and production. Produced by Jim Wilson. Executive producers, Mark J. Allen, Tammy Todd Allen, Earl P. Robinson, Howard Schow, Nan Schow, Tom Stull, Debra Stull. Co-producer, Faith Conroy.


Directed by Jim Wilson. Screenplay, Wilson, Faith Conroy. Story, Wilson, Conroy, Elizabeth Gaylynn Baker. Camera (color), Tim Suhrstedt; editor, Benjamin Callahan; music, William Ross; music supervisor, Maureen Crowe; production designer, Guy Barnes; costume designer, Lahly Poore-Ericson; casting, Emily Schweber, Jo Edna Boldin.


Skeet Ulrich, Christian Kane, William Devane, Madelyn Deutch, Todd Lowe, David Atkinson, Calvin Borel, Bruce Wayne Eckelman, Hugo Perez.

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  1. Tina Walker says:

    I keep hoping #50to1themovie will come to Florida. I am excited about the movie and can’t wait to see it. I understand #ChristianKane gives a stellar performance as Mark Allen and as a Major #Kaniac I can’t wait to see him on the Big Screen!

  2. Lisa King says:

    Will finally get to see this movie on May 24th. Will be driving 4 hrs to get there. Why you ask? Because I have followed this from when I first found out they cast Christian Kane in it. I knew that with his talent it would be great. I continued on the journey with them as they posted pictures and kept the fans joining in as they filmed and then went on tour to promote it. That all says this movie is worth something to put that much time, energy and heart into it. I feel a part of this movie from the way we fans were treated. I have every intention of laughing at all the naysayers when this film starts winning awards.

  3. BETH KREDEL says:

    I’m working very hard at finding a theater in my area that will show the movie! I will see this movie over and over after hearing my friends that have seen it praise it up and down! I was supposed to make the 6 hour drive to Kentucky to meet the tour participants and see the movie, but alas, I became ill and had to cancel my trip! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will come to my hometown or at least close enough to make a small trek! I absolutely love the trailer!

  4. I ABSOLUTELY LOVED everything about “50 to 1.” I drove from Illinois to Kentucky to see the cross-country tour they were doing to promote the movie. The added bonus was that I got to see the movie on the big screen while I was in Kentucky. My only regret is that I could only watch it once before I had to leave. Christian Kane is such an amazing actor. He is so versatile and was absolutely perfect for the part of Mark Allen. Skeet Ulrich is also one of my favorites, and his portrayal of Chip Woolley is fantastic. Todd Lowe added a lot of humor to the movie. I want to thank Jim Wilson and Faith Conroy for fighting so hard to get this movie made and out to the fans. They choose the perfect cast. In addition to the actors I mentioned above, William Devane, Madelyn Deutch, and Hugo Perez all did a fabulous job. It is nice to see a feel-good movie based on a true story and something the whole family can enjoy. We need more of these! I am looking forward to watching this movie over and over!! :)

  5. Robin says:

    Absolutely loved this movie, you leave the theater feeling good! It is beautifully shot and Jim Wilson and Faith Conroy did a wonderful job of casting, Christian Kane (Mark Allen), Skeet Ulrich (Chip Woolley) and William Devane (Doc Blach) do a fantastic job portraying their real life counterparts and you get to see actual footage of Calvin Borel and Mine That Bird winning the 2009 Kentucky Derby! If you are looking for a fun evening that doesn’t include the world ending or blood and guts getting splattered about this is a great choice!

  6. mentdijinn says:

    I saw the movie three times.. I loved it.. i thought it was excellent, A+ , 5 Stars, 10 on the scale of 1-10.. The movie was a true story and sometimes life is a bit of cliche’ .. Loved everything abt it.. Christian Kane and Skeet Ulrich and Calvin Borel and the rest of the cast were just awesome!! for me this #50to1 bet paid off!! get out and see this movie!!!

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