Empty8-10 p.m. Saturday, June 9
Horse racing movies are such a natural sell that it's curious why more of them aren't made. You have a sporting event packed with natural suspense; a sleek, powerful, docile animal adored by all; and some kind of heart-rending, redemptive backstory involving career track dudes. I mean, you almost have to willfully screw that up to avoid drawing people into the tent, you know?
Most recently, "Seabiscuit" did pretty well even while casting Spider-Man as the legendary equine's jockey. And now we have "Ruffian," which in some ways tells an even more emotive story given the cataclysmic fate that was to befall its protagonist. Turn this filly into an adult human male, put her in a sports car and she's James Dean, helping to remind us that before the more recent wrenching tale of a horse struck down in its prime (Barbaro, subject of an HBO Sports docu that premiered this week), there was this a generation ago.
This made-for-TV horse opera looks to have been hijacked by ABC from its sister ESPN. It now won't run on the sports cabler until October. That tells you that someone in charge at the broadcast network thought this film was pretty good. And it is. "Ruffian" blends all of the usual heart-in-your-throat racing action with a couple of vivid performances from the ever-soulful Sam Shepard and the underrated Frank Whaley, all shot with great care and dexterity by director Yves Simoneau (who also recently helmed HBO's American Indian period story "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee").
As this earnest and well-crafted sports movie makes clear, Ruffian might well have been the finest female racehorse ever to step onto a track. Dark and physically spectacular, she was pretty much born to run. In fact, up until her final race, Ruffian never lost, always winning in breathtaking style while breaking track records and leaving the other ladies eating her dust. It became something of a national obsession for Ruffian to test her skills against the colts, wondering whether she could compete on even terms with the best of the boys. And so a match race was set with male Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure on July 6, 1975.
The film's narrative pretty much surrounds the lead-up to and playing out of that fateful event that had been built up -- a bit ridiculously in hindsight -- as an equine Battle of the Sexes on the level of Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs. Everything in "Ruffian" carries a sense of foreboding, knowing as we do that the undefeated Ruffian would break her leg early in the race and, harrowingly, continue to try to run. She ultimately would have to be destroyed. And the straightforward script from scribes Jim Burnstein and Garrett K. Schiff spares us no tears even as it makes the point that Ruffian's steely trainer Frank Whiteley (Shepard) had recommended against his horse participating in an event he considered something of a charade.
Whaley portrays racing journalist Bill Nack as kind of a persistent, wily nerd whose life revolved entirely around the track. But the actor brings him to life with a measure of humanity rare in these portrayals. Shepard is his typically quiet and introspective self, but that persona works marvelously in this context. He communicates more with a glance than many are able to with pages of script. What ultimately emerges here is a film that fairly pours on the sentiment and yet earns the tears without apology. By the end, you're depressed because this lady who was struck down in her prime can't have that one catastrophic misstep back.
Orly Adelson Prods.
Executive producer: Orly Adelson
Co-executive producer: Jon Eskenas
Producer: Gideon Amir
Line producer: Robert J. Wilson
Teleplay: Jim Burnstein, Garrett K. Schiff
Director: Yves Simoneau
Director of photography: David Franco
Production designer: Vernon "Kelly" Curley
Costume designer: Peggy Stamper
Editor: Michael Ornstein
Music: Lawrence Shragge
Sound mixer: Richard Schexnayder
Casting: Libby Goldstein, Mark Fincannon
Frank Whiteley: Sam Shepard
Bill Nack: Frank Whaley
Dan Williams: Mat Greer
Mike Bell: Mark Adam
Squeaky: Tyrone Shaw
Stuart Janney: Nicholas Pryor
Barbara Janney: Christina Belford
Dinney Phipps: Keith Flippen
Braulio Baeza: Franco Torres
Leroy Jolly: Mark Harding
Tony Pappas: John McConnell
Dr. Pendergast: Jon Stafford