In the film “50 to 1,” director and Oscar-winning producer Jim Wilson tells the underdog story of Mind That Bird, the winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Mind That Bird, who was a long shot to win the Derby (50-to-1 odds), shocked everyone when he went from dead last after the first turn to take his place in the Winner’s Circle after breaking through his competition in the homestretch.
During an interview in San Antonio with Wilson, screenwriter Faith Conroy and actors Christian Kane, Madelyn Deutch, Todd Lowe and Hugo Perez, we talked about the incredible 2009 race, the challenges the film faced during production and got an update on how Mind That Bird is doing these days as a retiree living on a dude ranch in New Mexico.
There’s been a film about horse champions Seabiscuit and Secretariat already. What was it about Mind That Bird’s story that resonated with you to want to make a film about him?
Christian Kane: Let me tell you, I love those stories. Everybody loves a horse story. I feel like those horses were supposed to win. I look at those stories as documentaries. [“50 to 1”] is “Rocky,” man. This is the underdog. This horse was not supposed to be [in the Kentucky Derby] much less win the race.
Jim Wilson: What’s fun about it, too, is that the characters are so gritty. I wanted something dirtier than we’ve seen in the past. You go watch this race on YouTube and it’s stunning. Visually, it’s the most stunning race out of tens of thousands of races. At the end of the week, I am so depressed because I want to see a film that is uplifting and inspiring. Why did I want to make this film? It’s because I honestly don’t want to see any of the other films out there. I produced films in the [70s and 80s] and I miss a lot of those great films.
Faith Conroy: Yeah, it’s gotten to the point in movie making where I don’t even feel inspired to go to the theater anymore. The kinds of movies they’re putting out there, really aren’t the kinds of movie I want to see. I thought, “Why don’t we write our own?” This story just blew us away. We saw how much heart these characters had. I want a movie to make me feel good and inspired. That’s why I go to the movies.
I recently saw the 2009 race on YouTube. I had never seen it before. It’s amazing that the announcer didn’t even see Mind That Bird until the very end.
Madelyn Deutch: I know! He (Tom Durkin) quit his job the next day, didn’t he? Yeah, after 25 years announcing horse races he retired. He was so ashamed he missed the call. It was that big of an upset. (Note: Durkin sited “debilitating anxiety” as the reason he retired in 2011).
So, Madelyn, as someone who has a background in horses, how did you feel seeing that race take place?
MD: I didn’t see it live because I really wasn’t into horse racing. I grew up in California where show jumping is a really big thing. I started doing that when I was four. I remember when I got the job watching it on YouTube and thinking, “Oh my God.” It doesn’t even seem physically possible. The horse was on rocket fuel or something. As a horse person, I don’t understand how jockeys ride at all. It’s like their floating above the horse. They’re riding on their tiptoes. As a jumper, I respect the shenanigans out of those jockeys. I don’t know how they do it.
JW: I’ve followed sports all my life. Let me set this up: Here is this small horse on this track that had been rained on the night before. This horse is going off at 50-to-1 odds, meaning no one is betting on this horse. Nobody is giving this horse a chance and he leaves them all in the dust. He beats all these other horses that have been flown in from all over the world. In 24 seconds, he passes 18 horses! The only other horse who ran faster than him in the history of the Derby by one-fifth of a second was Secretariat. And that was on a perfect track. And he was the favorite. Secretariat was the greatest horse of all time. Something magical happened [with Mind That Bird] that day.
CK: It looked like Divine Intervention.
JW: Yeah, it does! You look at it and say, “This shouldn’t be.” This horse didn’t just beat the others by a nose or a head. He blew by them, and then he just kept running.
Todd Lowe: People just applaud during the racing scene. I tear up. I think we all do. I don’t want to get too spiritual about it, but you do get a chill up your spine watching the race. It was like the hand of God was touching this horse and pushing him into the front. Grown men are walking out of the theater in tears. I’ve been working on “True Blood,” which is dark and about adult themes, so to work on something that is warm and uplifting makes me proud to be a part of it.
CK: I’ve seen the race a couple of times myself. I saw it on YouTube, too. If you’re a fan of horse racing and you see this on the big screen, it doesn’t look real. That’s why you want to see this at the theater. You’ll see stuff that you didn’t see in the race.
Hugo, I don’t know if you ever go to the racetrack yourself, but would you put your own money on a horse that had 50-to-1 odds?
Hugo Perez: I don’t think I would. It’s just hard for me to let money go that easy. It’s an incredible story, really. I watched the movie at the premiere. You see this horse weaving through the others. It’s just moving like a snake between the other horses. It’s fantastic.
Todd, what did you learn about horses during the making of this movie that you didn’t know before?
TL: I didn’t even know the difference between a quarter-horse and a thoroughbred. I grew up in Houston in the 80s. Horse racing wasn’t too big. But there is a drama to the sport. I’ll bring $50 to the track one day. I might win. I might lose. But it’s $50 for a day’s worth of entertainment. That’s what I enjoy about it.
JW: That’s a great way to look at it. As a kid, I used to take $18 or $20 with me to the track. There are nine races, so I could put $2 down on each race. My goal for the day was to earn enough to pay for a beer and a good hotdog or burger. That was my entertainment. You become a pretty good handicapper when your food is on the line.
So, did you all get to meet Mind that Bird?
MD: Oh, yeah.
CK: Yeah, he’s been out to premieres with us. He’s part of the family.
MD: He gets way more attention than we do!
Did you get an opportunity to ride him, Madelyn?
MD: No, I never got to ride him, but I did most of the riding in the film.
JW: Would you get on Bird?
MD: Yeah! Are you kidding me?!
Was this movie being shot around the same time all the controversy with the HBO series “Luck” came out and some of those horses died on the set?
JW: That was part of the difficulty of funding the movie. “Luck” had just been pulled from the air. The film “Secretariat” hadn’t really done well in the box office. It wasn’t a great time to have written a story about horse racing and say, “Let’s go make this!” Hollywood was not willing to make a horse story. Before they even read it, they were like, “We don’t really want this, Jim.”
FC: Yeah, but studios turned down “Dances with Wolves” (1991 film Wilson won an Oscar for as a producer) a number of times, so there you go.
Jim, there is still a lot of controversy in the sport of horse racing. As someone who owns and races horses, do you see this first hand? Is there still a problem in the industry?
JW: When you’re dealing with an animal that is in your care and you’re in a competition where there are millions of dollars involved, that’s when things happen, yes. People want to get ahead. They want to see their horse in the Winner’s Circle. Man does the same thing with steroids. They want to get to the finish line first. Are there people out there that will try something illegal to get ahead? There always will be. All you can do is try to police the heck out of it. But there are so many great things about horse racing, too, which is why we wanted to make this film.
CK: You should see how Bird is living now.
JW: Oh, yeah. He’s living the good life. He’s living out in Roswell, New Mexico with his owners and eating all the bass he wants.
CK: Yeah, he lives on this big dude ranch. He has peppermints whenever he wants.
MD: He’s going to get so fat!
CK: Yeah, he doesn’t look like he misses too many meals these days.
JW: He looks like he’s pregnant.
MD: He really is a miracle horse! He’s pregnant! He won the Kentucky Derby at 50-to-1 odds and he’s pregnant!
JW: Not only is it a miracle he won the race, now he’s giving birth to twins!
CK: That should be the sequel!