Three less obvious horseracing films -Turf Talk: 4 December 2017

WHEN it comes to films featuring horseracing, we can be fairly safe in assuming that most people in this game have seen Secretariat, Seabiscuit and Phar Lap. The fact that each is named for the subject horse reflects either a remarkably coincidental decision not to risk going off message, or the certainty that the names transcend the usual boundaries of the thoroughbred to such an extent that they sell the film all by themselves.

Each film deals with superstar horses: one with feminist overtones, one taking us to the guts of American racing in the Great Depression and another widely regarded as the most faithful account of a great racehorse‘s career of them all, giving us no help in learning whether the great Australian Phar Lap was poisoned in the USA or not.

OK. So you’ve probably seen those three. But have you seen three other films that – had their producers followed the same naming policy as above – would have been called Dover, The Pie and Aldaniti? You may well have seen one, but perhaps not the other two?

I am stretching this point with “Dover” because he only appears briefly within the most iconic scene in what is widely regarded as one of the best musicals ever. The musical version of George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, included the ‘Ascot Gavotte” scene.

Eliza stepped out for her first exposure to society in her transformation from Covent Garden flower seller to getting away with being a Hungarian Princess, and the cinema audience needed no explanation as to why that might be at the Royal Meeting. She (Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film, but Julie Andrews on stage) did well in her mechanically trained way until, getting excited by a race – as you do – she slipped to her original accent with the much quoted “Come on Dover! Move yer bloomin’ arse!” causing shock and swooning.

Twenty years earlier, The Pie was the equine star in National Velvet, one of two films about the Grand National at Aintree that we mention here. Even now in the 21st century that is the race for which thousands of places of work in the country have a sweepstake and on which more people have a flutter for fun than any other, by far, plus being shown live in dozens of countries.

In 1945, people were exhausted by war, so an escapist film about the National was just the ticket. The cast were mostly either too old or too young or to be in uniform, one – the girl masquerading as a boy jockey – being Elizabeth Taylor in her breakthrough effort at around 12 years old. Miss Taylor did well enough in the role, not that long moved to USA with her American parents. She was born in Hampstead Garden Suburb in this writer‘s neck of the woods and maintained dual citizenship throughout her life, thus becoming a real Dame Elizabeth for her humanitarian work, not an honorary one. Many would have made her one for those violet eyes but hey…

The Pie was The Pie in the book because he was a piebald. But in the film, he was a chestnut (more likely to be running in the National, but this was not a story to rely on factual detail at all). They contrived a reason for Velvet Brown to name him. But so what? A vehicle for the young star, for Mickey Rooney, Angela Lansbury (a Dame herself now and still active) and Donald Crisp (born in 1882) was and is well worth studying and enjoying.

Anne Revere won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Velvet‘s mother but not long after was one of hundreds on the Hollywood Blacklist/witch hunt for supposed un-American activities that included Charlie Chaplin, Richard Atten-borough, Paul Robeson, Marsha Hunt and so on.

Another film about the Grand National that does rely strongly on factual detail is very much about the central human as well as the central horse.

Champions(1984) is the true story of a jockey (Bob Champion) and a horse (Aldaniti) – a partnership – who both suffered life threatening conditions at about the same time with neither odds on to survive. Bob was treated for testicular cancer and recovered at the Royal Marsden driven by the prospect of riding in the National, while Aldaniti “did a tendon” in November 1979 and was off for a year.

The horse‘s tendon was a bad version of the injury and he might have been put down. But his owners Nicky and Valda Embiricos, descendants of London Greek ship owners, asked his (willing) trainer to try to save him. That was Josh Gifford, champion jockey turned trainer played by Edward Woodward. (Say that name three times quickly…).

Aldaniti was not named for some mythical Mediterranean character whom we are all supposed to know but for Alastair, David, Nicola, Timothy, the children of his breeder who kept him for several years until starting a jumping career. He captured the imagination when emerging as a top class chaser in 1979. Then, looking like an Aintree type, he was all but cut down.

By 1981 he could race again. Not only that but he (and Champion) won the Whitbread Trial chase at
Ascot on his comeback in February of that year. Still enervated by the exploits of three times National winner Red Rum, racing fans and the sporting country at large sensed something special.

A very good ensemble cast lead by the brilliant John Hurt was moulded into a proper and unashamed tear jerker – not a great film but a great story well filmed and all the more so for being absolutely true. Aldaniti played himself.

The pairing won the 1981 Grand National with the country going crackers as the fairytale played out. A year later, they returned to Aintree. They fell at the 1st. Such is life.

But Bob Champion was at the sales last week as usual, 36 years later, and Aldaniti was retired after the fall, unhurt, and spent the next 15 years on his owners‘ farm in Sussex until old age (27 years of it) overtook him in 1997.

Just as the theme from Chariots of Fire is used in so many contexts, so is the theme from Champions familiar to many people who haven‘t seen the film. You may well recognise it – when you watch? And weep. In a good way. -tt.

Allan Bloodlines