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.
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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.