A new twist on the horse racing movie hits theatres this weekend, with And They’re Off … providing a light-hearted look at the inner workings of the sport in mockumentary format.
The film is unlike its Hollywood predecessors, that either showcased the fairy tale of the relationship between man and horse at the highest level in Secretariat and Seabiscuit, or chronicled triumph and tragedy with Barbaro and Charismatic.
The only other only comedy of note about horse racing is Let It Ride, but that was focused more on just the gambling aspect of the sport.
“The goal was to make a good comedy that’s set in the world of horse racing and not make just a horse racing movie,” the film’s writer/producer Alan Grossbard told me in an interview. “We wanted to also create a nice story so that you walk out of it having laughed, but also feeling pretty good.”
The mockumentary format was used in the movie Spinal Tap, which took a comedic look at the world of rock n’ roll, and also on current TV shows The Office and Modern Family.
“The Office isn’t about the paper supply business, it’s about interesting and funny characters that are in an office and it could be anybody’s office,” said Grossbard. “Overall, we’re ecstatic because we think we’ve been able to make a funny film set in a world of funny people. Hopefully, anybody who watches it is going to have some laughs whether they know about horse racing or not.”
The upside of filming the movie in just 18 days was that it allowed for prominent names to fit the production into their schedule, led by Sean Astin, who stars as trainer Dusty Sanders.
Sanders hasn’t won a race in a year and a half and the movie opens with him explaining to the audience how his horse was just claimed by Doug O’Neill, who in real life has been one of the most successful trainers in California for the past decade.
Along with O’Neill, other top trainers John Sadler and Bob Baffert have cameo appearances along with jockeys Joe Talamo and Martin Garcia.
“For every role that we needed there is a funny way to present each person,” said Grossbard. “Getting Sean Astin to play a guy who loves what he’s doing, but he’s not very good at it, we were able to build the rest of the cast around that.”
A pair of Saturday Night Live alums joins the film with Cheri Oteri playing Sanders’ ex-girlfriend jockey trying to get back in his life and Kevin Nealon making a special appearance as a potential employer should Sanders not make it at the track.
Martin Mull, who has used his satiric style across film, television and as a recording artist since the 1970’s, is cast as Sanders’ father, who worries he is not cut out to be a trainer in the competitive world of horse racing.
Entrenched in the game himself in all aspects, including being involved with ownership syndicates Bongo and Class, Grossbard is able to tell the story with accurate detail and realism, but also pays attention to explaining its intricacies.
“The whole claiming business can be confusing for people unless you lay it out for them so I want people to understand how this works,” said Grossbard. “It’s more than just betting on a horse and hope he wins. Most people who’ve seen it that don’t know much about horse racing say they understand it.”
Producing a movie about horse racing during an era when the sport has fallen out of favor in mainstream America is a challenge Grossbard was not afraid of taking on.
“When you try to do something there are plenty of people asking why are you doing this and telling you it’s not going to work,” said Grossbard. “If you think you’ve got something that people want to see and you can control the budget you keep going.
“I thought it was a good idea and fortunately when people started reading it they said it could be fun and wanted to do it. No matter what people were telling me I had to figure out a way to do it. You can’t be afraid to fail.”
With this film, Grossbard hopes to portray the fun of the sport and how everyone can relate to it on some level.
“We’re dreamers. We’re a little bit crazy. That’s what’s so fun about the sport and also so funny about it,” said Grossbard, which gives more meaning to the title of the movie than just the horses leaving the starting gate. “There are 25,000 foals born every year and only one wins the Kentucky Derby. Everyone in the sport is passionate and loves this. Whether we end up at the Kentucky Derby or at Fairplex Park we’re all screaming. It’s such a rush coming around that final turn and that’s what gets people hooked on it.”
And They’re Off ... premiered at the Hollywood Film Festival last week as one of the top films and is being released in selected cities on Friday, October 28 ahead of the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships being held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. on November 4 and 5.
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