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‘Jockey’ movie captures life on backstretch at B-circuit racetracks

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.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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