This homespun “Seabiscuit” is the sort of little movie you’d like to beat the odds, which exceed even the long ones of the title. But “50 to 1”—about Mine That Bird, the gelding that pulled off a huge upset by winning the 2009 Kentucky Derby and then went on to come in second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont Stakes—ranks toward the back of the pack among uplifting sports flicks. Earnest but cliché-ridden, it doesn’t come up lame but does hobble past the finish line more than a little winded.
Actually, though the horse is an indispensable part of the story—and the script and director Jim Wilson work hard to give him a rambunctious personality—the emphasis is really on the human folk surrounding him, all terribly colorful types. If the underlying message of Gary Ross’s 1985 picture about Seabiscuit was how that horse’s unlikely triumphs symbolized America’s successful struggle against the Great Depression, this one is about how Mine That Bird’s seemingly miraculous win represented the victory of the “common man” over an arrogant elite, one member of which, rival owner Bill Baffert (Bruce Wayne Eckelman), loudly and contemptuously dismisses the horse’s team in the run-up to the race, while another offers a toast at the pre-race banquet proclaiming themelves, along with their horses, as “thoroughbreds.”
By contrast, Mine That Bird—which had not enjoyed stellar performances after coming to New Mexico from success in Canada—was accompanied to Kentucky by a bunch of outsiders. They’re co-owners Mark Allen (Christian Kane), a rich but rowdy cowpoke, and “Doc” Blach (William Devane), a grumpy old gent with a large family, along with hardscrabble trainer Chip Woolley (Skeet Ulrich), whose own stable with his brother (David Atkinson) has fallen on hard times. And they come to the race with an unruly entourage including Doc’s wife, pretty assistant trainer Alex (Madelyn Deutch)—who becomes Chip’s romantic interest during an “It Happened One Night” sort of road trip—and Mark’s fun-loving cousin Kelly (Todd Lowe). They’re obviously out of place in such a tony environment, but surprise everyone with their victory, which is also a career high for their last-minute jockey Calvin Borel (who plays himself, nicely).
One can’t blame “50 to 1” for the predictability of its ending, of course—in fact, it recreates the actual race pretty skillfully. But however true to fact what precedes that might be, it all has the feel of fiction, from the opening in which Mark and Chip meet during a barroom brawl years earlier to the scene right before the race when Woolley discovers that the horse, which has a knack for opening the door of its stall, has gone missing. It sometimes feels as though writers Elizabeth Gaylynn Baker, Faith Conroy and Wilson are following a checklist of obligatory moments, and that as director Wilson is pounding each of them home with almost brute force.
The performers respond with performances that haven’t much subtlety to them: Ulrich and Kane are nearly caricatures, and veteran Devane is forced to endure such indignities as smiling while his wife puts a silly hat on his head and grimacing as he lifts Kane up on his shoulders to reach a window. He deserves better. But Eckelman surely takes the cake (though not the winner’s trophy) as the very epitome of “thoroughbred” snootiness.
“50 to 1” is adequately made from a technical standpoint, with Tim Suhrstedt providing decent cinematography and William Ross an appropriately upbeat score. But as it closes with newsreel footage of the actual celebrations that followed Mine That Bird’s Derby win—yet another predictable touch in a chain of commonplace beats—you’re left with the feeling that you’ve seen it all many times before, and needn’t have seen it again.