A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Inspirational film ‘50 to 1’ tells the story of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird
Cast and crew from the fact-based sports drama “50 to 1” brought their cross-country bus tour this week to Oklahoma, where the film opens in theaters Friday.
By the time “the greatest two minutes in sports” ended, collaborators Jim Wilson and Faith Conroy knew they wanted to make a movie about 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, a 50-to-1 longshot who made it to the winner’s circle after a stunning rally.
“I own horses and I’ve raced horses for over 20 years, but I saw a race that just blew me away. I mean, visually, to have a horse pinched at the start and fall 30 lengths back, he was off the TV screen, that’s how bad it was. … To run what he did was just astounding,” recalled Wilson, the Oscar-winning producer of “Dances with Wolves,” “The Bodyguard” and “Wyatt Earp.”
“So at the end of that race, both Faith and I said, ‘I hope there’s something more to this story,’ meaning you had a great horse and you ran a great race at 50 to 1 and that’s a lot of fun. But you need great characters as well.”
Fortunately, the owners and trainer of the crooked-legged gelding boasted a backstory as unbelievable Mine That Bird’s historic Derby win, and five years later, the inspirational fact-based film “50 to 1” is galloping into theaters.
“They didn’t want to embarrass themselves ‘cause Bird hadn’t been winning since they bought him. But they went anyway and they made history,” said, Conroy, the movie’s co-writer and co-producer. “It’s a great story.”
With the movie opening Friday in Oklahoma, Wilson, Conroy and actor Jamie McShane (TV’s “Sons of Anarchy”) brought their “50 to 1” bus tour to Oklahoma City, Stillwater and Tulsa earlier this week to meet with fans and media.
“We’re on a cross-country tour that started in New Mexico, which is largely where this story started. And we’re kind of mimicking the trail that the trainer took with his horse up to Kentucky,” said Wilson, the film’s director, producer and co-writer. “We’re seeing the sights along with seeing the people, which is wonderful.”
The trio stopped in the NewsOK studios Tuesday morning after appearances Monday at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and Remington Park and en route to stops at Oklahoma State University and Eskimo Joe’s. At the Oklahoma City racetrack, they were joined by Mark Allen, the real-life owner of Mine That Bird, and the equine superstar himself.
Norman-bred actor Christian Kane plays Allen in the film, while William Devane portrays Allen’s business partner, veterinarian Leonard “Doc” Blach. Skeet Ulrich takes the lead as Mine That Bird’s trainer Chip Wooley, while the jockey that rode the Thoroughbred to victory, Calvin Borel, plays himself.
“We’ve become family,” Wilson said. “We spent a tremendous amount of time really researching this and getting to know these guys. And they’re terribly colorful and beautifully flawed – as we all are –and you find out right off the bat that these two guys, Chip and Mark, met in a bar fight when one came to the other one’s aid. And we looked at each other and said, ‘That’s the way to start a movie.’”
Although he had never met him before, the seasoned filmmaker soon was convinced Kane was the right man to play the racehorse’s maverick owner.
“He came in for an audition and really wanted the part. He said, ‘I am Mark Allen, I’m a cowboy, I grew up in Oklahoma.’ He said, ‘I’m a tequila drinker. My folks are rodeo,’ and he’s just a dynamo. He’s said, ‘I gotta play this part,’ and he’s like a bull in a china shop. He wasn’t gonna take no for an answer,” Wilson said, adding Kane was on the bus tour until a new acting gig pulled him away.
“He admitted that he’d been in bar fights and ‘I am this guy,’ and we believed him because, boy, you believe Christian Kane. He is a powerhouse,” Conroy said with a grin.
To lens “50 to 1” on a tight budget, the cast and crew filmed at 40 different locations, mostly in New Mexico, during the 40-day shoot.
“We moved quite a bit, sometimes twice a day. … It was a lot to do, and we were very fortunate that we had a crew that could do this with us and keep it moving as quickly as it needed to go. We had a cast that was brilliant and kept it alive and moving as well. In the end, it’s so authentic because we were able to go to places that were the real places,” Conroy said. “We even shot in Mine That Bird’s real stall at Churchill Downs.”
While racing movies like “Seabiscuit” and “Secretariat” filmed for three or four days at the hallowed home of the Kentucky Derby, Wilson was able to get permission to lens there for nine full days.
“It’s amazing to be in that winner’s circle because they only allow one horse in that winner’s circle once a year – and that’s at the Derby. They don’t use it for any other races. So you’re walking in there and you’re recreating this moment, and it’s pretty stunning,” he said.
To convincingly recreate the race sequences on a tight budget, the filmmaker obtained the rights to real high-definition footage – including 13 hours of NBC’s coverage of the 2009 Derby – and then used lenses and cameras that would allow him to match scenes he filmed.
“It was a mixture – and I haven’t seen this done previously – of real footage cut with footage where I wanted to augment moments. … This happened less than five years ago, and here it is out in theaters,” Wilson said.
“It’s the reason to see it on the big screen. That moment when this horse puts the move on, you can’t see on a television. You’re just never gonna get the effect.”
For McShane, who plays the Canadian trainer who sold Mine That Bird to Allen, everyone can relate to the story of the New Mexico misfits who didn’t fit in once they made the decision to trek to the Kentucky Derby with the modest goal of not finishing in last place.
“Then all of the sudden, the horse takes off. And it’s amazing. And it’s amazing the beauty of seeing these guys and women who struggled for a dream cross the finish line first,” he said.