There are two kinds of presents: Those you know are coming, like another sweater from Aunt Edna, and those that surprise and delight.
Horseplayers are getting one of each over the holidays, though they have to wait until after Christmas to open them.
The one we knew was coming is the traditional Boxing Day opening card at Santa Anita Park on Sunday, one of the best of the year at any racetrack.
But first let’s admire the one we didn’t see coming: “Jockey,” a new racing-themed movie that opens Wednesday in Los Angeles and New York.
As an aficionado of horse racing movies, I know a thing or two about how the sport gets presented on the big screen. And this indie movie, filmed on a slim budget in a 20-day sprint at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, gets two thumbs up.
The movie, starring Clifton Collins Jr. as an aging jockey battling a lifetime of accrued physical ailments, also features Molly Parker as a low-rent trainer with a horse who could be special, and Moises Arias as a young rider who has been shadowing Collins’ character because he believes him to be his father.
Complications ensue, as they do, but the film’s charm is the authenticity of its portrayal of life on the backstretch at the smaller racetracks, a milieu best explored previously in the 1952 classic “Boots Malone,” starring William Holden.
That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, given that Clint Bentley, who directed and co-wrote the script with Greg Kwedar, grew up in that world, following his dad, Robbie Bentley, to tracks across the south.
“There’s an atmosphere at those working-class tracks that I didn’t feel I’d seen in movies a lot, so I wanted to introduce people to that,” he told me this week.
He said a lot of his friends also had little idea what jockeys do to earn their keep.
“It’s something they clearly don’t do for the money, either the jockeys or the trainers,” said Bentley, who sat in the director’s chair for the first time. “They do it for what it brings to their life outside of cash.”
That certainly applies to the elder Bentley, who rode from 1989 until 1996, with nearly all of his 86 victories coming aboard quarter horses. Only once, in 1991, did his mounts’ earnings top $100,000 in a year.
As an added bonus, a number of Turf Paradise riders — Ryan Barber, Martin Bourdieu, Logan Cormier, Aki Kato, Richard Lull, Scott Stevens, Marlon St. Julien, Carl “The Truth” Williams and Michael Ybarra — have roles in “Jockey.”
Unfortunately, movie and racing fans in the Las Vegas area will have to wait to see the film, as it is not clear what sort of theatrical distribution it will get before heading to the video-on-demand world.
Opening day at the ‘Great Race Place’
Aunt Edna’s sweater can’t hold a candle to the other gift — opening day at Santa Anita.
One of the most anticipated cards of the year features six graded stakes races, three of them Grade 1s.
Among the highlights: The return of Hot Rod Charlie in the $200,000 San Antonio Stakes, potential superfreak Flightline testing his mettle in the $300,000 Malibu Stakes and a deep cast of competitive 3-year-old fillies in the $300,000 American Oaks.
If you decide to drive over from Las Vegas, be sure to bring your COVID-19 vaccination card or a negative PCR or Antigen test taken 72 hours before arrival and a face mask. Both are required under Los Angeles County pandemic rules for events with large crowds.
Ellis Starr’s Malibu Stakes analysis
There is no discussion about this race which does not involve Flightline winning, and possibly dominating, this year’s Runhappy Malibu Stakes. I cannot ever recall a 3-year-old doing what this colt has done in his two starts to date. In his debut in April, Flightline was bumped at the start and found himself sixth of eight and about one and one-half lengths from the leader. After a sixteenth of a mile, Flightline had taken the lead and by the time the field hit the stretch he was in front by eight lengths, eventually drawing off to win by 13 and one-quarter lengths. For that effort, Flightline earned a virtually unheard of 116 Equibase Speed Figure, which at that time of year would have won a graded stakes. Away from the races for a little over four months after that, Flightline relaxed in second for the first quarter mile and then won by nearly 13 lengths, this time earning a grade 1 figure of 130. To put that kind of effort into perspective, Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Aloha West earned a 110 figure and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Knicks Go earned a 118 figure. Even impressive Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Life is Good (120 figure) did not run as fast as Flightline did in that effort on Sept. 5.
Rested almost four months this time, Flightline has been working out strongly every six to eight days since Oct. 31, including three straight workouts which were the best from among 28, 57 and 41 horses. Jockey Flavien Prat, who rode Flightline to victory in both starts, also rode Dr. Schivel to win four straight races and to a nose defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint but chooses Flightline in the Malibu. Prat also rode Triple Tap to both of his impressive wins. Going back to how fast Flightline has run in his two starts to date, comparing those efforts to the rest of the Malibu field, even the 116 figure Flightline earned in his maiden win in April is faster than the best figure any other horse in the field has earned this year, and if he repeats the 130 figure effort from September, and even if horses like Triple Tap (107 last race figure and Dr. Schivel (112 and 110 figures in his last two races) improve off those recent efforts, it is going to be very difficult to beat Flightline in this race.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Baby Yoda (111); Dr. Schivel (112); Stilleto Boy (106); Team Merchants (109); Timeless Bounty (100); and Triple Tap (107).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.