The pantheon of horse racing movies usually includes Let it Ride and the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races. A Google search of best horse racing movies shows 51 titles — including a personal favorite, the Hennegan brothers’ The First Saturday in May. It even includes the 1939 film The Long Shot. But not 1986’s The Longshot, which in the limited view of this blog is the greatest of them all.
On this day that horse racing lost one of its greatest fans, comedian Tim Conway, his fans, especially the betting kind, should reconsider this movie that lacked box office or critical acclaim. I once mentioned it to Dave Johnson, then the race caller for ABC Sports, and he was almost embarrassed about the film in which, not surprisingly, he was the track announcer. It made a whopping $256,301 at the box office ($597,602.26 in today’s terms). Conway, in an article on America’s Best Racing, said he wrote it in a day as a funny story. It’s slapstick, like a saltier version of characters that would have been on The Carol Burnett Show. It is what it is.
But this movie starring Conway has kept my horse-racing crazy family laughing for 33 years running — and even today when my sister and I went back and watched clips of it. To us, it is the perfect representation of the “little guy” bettors with whom we identify –who believe in a lucky toilet at the track, that “the track” is behind that lucky stall being occupied, who finally have the inside information that will make them rich and who make the guy betting for the group — who doesn’t bet the horse they agreed upon — eat the ticket (I think of my friend who killed our show parlay at Keeneland Race Course betting an Ohio bred). As bad as this movie is from most any critical perspective, it’s us on the screen — or some guys who are like us, but even worse off than us.
In the movie, Conway and his gang of friends, including Harvey Korman, have a flat tire on the way to the track for their big bet and have to hitch a ride from a bumpkin played by Jonathan Winters. The group tells Winters’ character they need to get to the funeral home, which just happens to be across the street from the racetrack, to pay their respects. To get Winters’ character moving, Conway says, “The opening prayer is at one o’clock and we’d really like to be there for that.”
Go enjoy Let it Ride, Seabiscuit, Secretariat and all those others. I’ll watch The Long Shot.
In Conway’s honor, all racing fans should get to a racetrack for “the opening prayer.” Keep laughing and trying to hit the big one.