Thoroughbred will debut tonight in most markets on PBS at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain. You should check local listings.
The running of the 137th Kentucky Derby is this weekend, which to me marks an occasion to drink a mint julep, look at photos of women in silly hats and to find out whether the horse that wins the race will be the horse that helps us win the war on terrorism (much the same way Seabiscuit helped us win World War II. At least, that’s what I got from the movie Seabiscuit.)
So it’s opportune, of course, for PBS to run the film Thoroughbred, directed by Paul Wagner and narrated by Kathryn Walker. The movie feels like it's aimed at yokels like me who don’t bet or follow turf news. The problem with the film, though, is that so much information about Thoroughbred racing is crammed into its hour and twenty minutes that it feels like we learn a little bit about a lot of subjects when such rich subject matter begs for closer looks at its various facets.The film, all at once, touches upon breeding, Middle-Eastern and civil rights ties to horse racing, old Kentucky farms, jockeys, trainers, grooms and owners, and how the sport has changed over the last several decades. The effect is that the movie feels a little scattered. Thoroughbred would be much more more informative if it had been able to be presented as a series, with much more time spent on each topic. I watched Thoroughbred after enjoying Kevin Conley’s 2002 book Stud: Adventures in Breeding, but I don’t think I learned anything new from the film that I hadn’t already learned in the book, which is both informative and slightly cheeky, whereas the film feels slightly impersonal.
My primary issue with Thoroughbred is that it’s misnamed. I may have enjoyed it more had it been titled Derby, since that’s ultimately where the movies takes us: the 2009 Kentucky Derby. The film introduces us the Lanzmans, first-time buyers and owners of favorite I Want Revenge. Paterfamilias David Lanzman is a “former singer in various LA rock bands” who looks the part. The Lanzmans are a little bit flashy and a little bit trashy (“trashy” in the way that they own a horse in the Kentucky Derby.) We’re led to root for Tom McCarthy, elderly owner of General Quarters, his only horse, one that he grooms himself. The Lanzmans sell off part of the ownership to I Want Revenge, while McCarthy declares General Quarters not for sale. I won’t ruin the surprise for you of what happens, in case you don’t remember the results of the ‘09 Derby, but it’s a reminder that essentially Thoroughbred racing is the world’s most expensive crap shoot, with some eugenics thrown in.
For a movie named Thoroughbred I rather missed the horses. We’re tossed a few tidbits on the origins of horse racing and Thoroughbred lineage and we revisit one particular mare whose owners hope to breed. The most beautiful footage of the movie is of horses running free on Kentucky farms, scenes so pastoral it seems impossible that they could take place in in the twenty-first century. But the film focuses so much more on humans involved with horse racing, particularly those who aren’t in close proximity to the horses themselves. I would have loved to learn more about how a horse is raised and trained to run, what makes one a good racer versus a just a good breeder. One of my favorite scenes was one of the few where the talking heads actually paid homage to the horse, where jockey Donna Barton Brothers gets emotional talking about how beautiful the horses look lining up for the race, knowing that this is their moment.
Thoroughbred is a good primer for viewers who somehow managed to escape watching most major horse racing movies or would like to peek behind the scenes of Thoroughbred racing (like a scene where Sheikh Mohammed of Dubaibid, in a t-shirt, bids on new horseflesh). Prior to the pageantry of race day, the film helps remind us of all the work, all the money, all the things that have to go right (including luck) that brings about a Derby win. The drunken celebrity wannabes in the boxes at the race look foolish when you see the serious effort that goes into making the race happen.
I would have preferred that if Thoroughbred couldn’t have gone longer, Wagner had picked a few select topics on which to focus so that we’d come out knowing more about a few things about horse racing rather than a little about a lot.
—Yes, there is a horse breeding scene in this movie but it is handled, as they say, tastefully.