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Horsey tale ‘50 to 1’ takes us back to a gentler movie time

Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.
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Jockey Calvin Borel (as himself) races Mine That Bird (Sunday Rest) at Churchill Downs.

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Watching “50 to 1,” I tried to remember the exact point where “old-fashioned” went from a compliment to a putdown. Once it meant “reliable” or “time-tested,” as in “old-fashioned values” or “an old-fashioned craft.” But along the way, it came to mean “out-of-date,” especially in Hollywood: There’s no room for “old-fashioned” among computer-generated superheroism and 3-D green-screen techniques.

Yet this story of underdog racehorse Mine That Bird and his equally underdog trainer, Chip Woolley, plays by old-fashioned narrative rules. The language is a little saltier than it would have been years ago, but the heart of the film remains just the same: It’s a story of triumph of a little man and little horse at the odds mentioned in its title.

Longtime producer Jim Wilson (“Dances With Wolves”) makes his directing debut from the screenplay he wrote with Faith Conroy, and he set it in a world he knows. Wilson has owned and raced horses for years and once had a 190-acre ranch in California. And he has made the kind of film he might have seen as a kid, one where patience and hard work get rewarded at the 11th hour.

Unlike “Seabiscuit,” it’s more the story of a man than a mount. Woolley (played with understated conviction by Skeet Ulrich) saves a cowboy named Mark Allen (Christian Kane) from a bar beating in New Mexico in the late ’90s. Allen goes off to Alaska to seek money in oil; Woolley spends the intervening years as a trainer, steadily making less money. He’s about to tap out when he runs into the oil-rich Allen, who has gone into the training/ownership business with Doc Blach (William Devane).

They take Woolley on, but he gets nowhere until he’s assigned to a Canadian gelding with a small body and a crooked walk. Mine That Bird turns out to be less than a goldmine at 3 years old, though his winnings the year before entitle him to a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Anyone with YouTube access can see that race, where an astonishing stretch run made him the second highest-paying long shot in Derby history.

The story doesn’t spend a lot of time individualizing characters. We can sympathize with Woolley without distinguishing him from many hard-luck guys in the same mucky boots, and the cowboys-vs.-establishment vibe sometimes gets heavy-handed. (These are cowboys rich enough to own multiple race horses, guys whose track paydays bring hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

At the same time, the story avoids pitfalls. Woolley’s tempestuous relationship with a fierce young exercise jockey (Madelyn Deutch) turns into respect, as we hope it will, rather than a forced romance. Nor does she suddenly blossom as a world-class rider on Derby day; the team hires shrewd veteran Calvin Borel to ride. (The big race in the film, with Borel recreating his own victorious dash, makes an exciting climax, even when you know what’s coming.)

Kane has a relaxed charisma, especially with Ulrich. So does Sunday Rest, the beast playing Mine That Bird. He’s a horsey ham, nodding sagely when required and rolling his eyes in disbelief at some inanity. That’s definitely old-fashioned equine movie behavior, yet it goes down easily.

Toppman: 704-365-5170
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