Racing at the movies

Shanghai - or Ascot?

Sky television is busy promoting its new drama Luck starring Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, and, in due course Michael Gambon. The first episode of the series was broadcast in the States on Sunday evening, and will be on television in the UK on the Sky Atlantic channel early in February.

The series is out of the same stable (and the pun is intended here) as the American Western drama Deadwood, so it's likely to be a series that takes some time to establish itself. It's ahorseracing drama, built around the fortunes of a former gambler (Hoffman), newly released from prison; a group of down and out gamblers who strike it rich; jockeys with problems; and a horse brought cross from Ireland whose ownership seems a bit dubious. Add to that a trainer (Nolte) who gives everybody the eye without saying much to anyone. Very early on the scenes at the racetrack, with a jockey's eye view of what it's like to be riding full pelt have some real power to them.

The racecourse that has the good fortune to feature heavily in the drama is California's Santa Anita track, and there's no pretending it's anywhere else as the series uses the Santa Anita name. There’s a part for jockey turned model/actress Chantal Sutherland, and following his 2003 performance as Seabiscuit’s jockey George Wolff, former jockey Gary Stevens returns as a rider with drug problems. Speaking to the Los Angeles Daily News, Stevens said he hoped the series would generate a new audience for horseracing. "We're doing a lot right now as an industry to get back into the picture again. I'm hopeful (the show) will expose the sport to a whole new generation out there."

Of course this is by no means the first time that racing has had a significant part in film or television drama. In 1897 a four-minute, silent piece Ascot Races Arrival of the Prince of Wales was one of the first films ever shot in England. There were no cast fees – the only person seen on screen was the future King Edward VII.

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Brighton racecourse played a significant part in the 1947 film of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, with the fight between rival razor gangs, one led by young Richard Attenborough's fragile Pinkie. This too was very realistic, so much so that it led to calls from the Daily Mirror's film critic for the film not to be shown, perhaps because there was too much realism in it for an audience looking for escapism just after the war.

More recently many of the James Bond films have included sequences shot at racecourses, though often they have doubled as other buildings. In 1985 A View To A Kill featured both Ascot and the delightful Piste d'Avilly near Chantilly.

10 years later Epsom became St Petersburg airport in Goldeneye. This was done partly to reduce cost, but also because a second unit which was out in Russia had to be protected by bodyguards.

Most recently, in November last year the Bond crew were back at Ascot filming for the next Bond adventure, Skyfall, which is due out in October this year. The new grandstand fills in for sequences supposedly at Shanghai International Airport. Shooting, which included 300 Chinese extras, took place at night, primarily to avoid picking up images of the racecourse. A power failure meant that the wrap ran over from 7:30 pm until 3.00 am the following morning.

As it happens, I've never watched a James Bond film in my life, and have no intention of starting now, so I won't be looking out for the imposter. Best of luck spotting it if you are.

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1 reply
  1. Keith Eckstein says:

    I saw the pilot of Luck a few weeks ago and it looked pretty good (so good that I’ve watched it again.)

    Although a few of the characters (the group of gamblers at the track & the loan shark security guard in particular) seem a bit over the top, the other characters (especially Hoffman) seem to be very well acted.

    I feel that the story line may well move more in the casino/general gambling direction (perhaps with a hint of organised crime thrown in for good measure?), I think this will be one of the few TV programs I will make a point of watching.

    All the best


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