Made somewhat in the Disney mode but nowhere near as imaginative or slick as films from the Mouse House, modestly budgeted sports saga Run for the Roses has many of the problems that plague subpar family films. The storyline is manipulative and predictable, as if younger viewers are too simple to track real plotting; the syrupy moments are plentiful, as when a little boy prays to the accompaniment of weepy guitar/harmonica music; and the themes are skewed toward a pandering vision of people always rising to their better nature. That said, proficient Hollywood actors play important supporting roles, giving key scenes the illusion of emotional weight, and extensive location photography provides a helpful sense of place, especially during scenes set at the Kentucky Derby. So while none would ever contend that Run for the Roses rises to the level of, say, The Black Stallion (1979), it’s a harmless tale espousing wholesome values. The notion that being selfless is its own reward may not resonate with what most of us encounter in everyday reality, but it’s a hopeful sentiment to put across—as is the idea of being compassionate toward animals.
Rich widow Clarissa Stewart (Vera Miles) owns a horse farm in Kentucky, but always comes up short in the Derby. Concurrently, she clashes with her adult nephew, Jim (Sam Groom), a ne’er-do-well whom she hopes might one day take over the family business. Jim is friendly with Clarissa’s horse trainer, Charlie (Stuart Whitman), who lives on the Stewart farm with his Puerto Rican wife and her young son, Juanito (Panchito Gómez). One night, a mare gives birth to a lame foal sired by a horse that came in second in the Derby. After Clarissa orders the foal destroyed, Juanito begs for mercy and Clarissa gives him the animal on a whim. Overjoyed, he names the horse “Royal Champion” and raises it to adulthood. Then Juanito’s buddy Flash (Teddy Wilson), a friendly African-American guy who works on the farm, agrees to bankroll surgery on the horse’s bad leg It’s not difficult to guess what happens next—the minute Clarissa realizes Royal Champion has racing potential, she angles to retake possession.
Were it not for the presence of Miles, Whitman, and Wilson in their roles, Run for the Roses would be quite tedious to watch. As is, scenes featuring only Gómez and the horse are slow going, since Gómez is a typical pose-and-pout Hollywood child actor. Yet Miles is so formidable, Whitman is so imposing, and Wilson is so likeable that they sell their characterizations as hard as they can. (Groom and ingénue Lisa Eilbacher, who plays his love interest, lend little more than earnestness and youthful attractiveness.) Although getting through Run for the Roses requires overlooking lots of problems, from clunky exposition to graceless photography, the picture is so innocuous and kindhearted as to be mostly palatable.
Run for the Roses: FUNKY