Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Film Review: "On the Muscle: Portrait of a Thoroughbred Racing Stable"

By Ruben Bailey

So many things can happen in our everyday lives. Uncertainty, impatience, uneasiness; emotions that human beings deal with in a constant struggle to remain a positive, caring, contributor to larger society.

When one begins to think of the place that thoroughbred horseracing holds in the minds of ordinary citizens in everyday society, results can range from cynically uninterested to impassioned advocate. “On the Muscle” a brand new three hour documentary series by filmmakers Bill Yahraus and Robin Rosenthal unveils the layers of real life emotion buried underneath the grandstand of America’s thoroughbred racetracks.

Showcased around events rarely heard, seen, or felt by the public, “On the Muscle” follows Richard Mandella, a horse trainer of 30 years, preparing six horses for what will prove to be a roller coaster ride to the top of the horse racing world. What you are rewarded with in this three part documentary is a rich understanding of the heavy emotional swings and real life ups and downs that come with being a lifetime professional horseman.

365 days a year is the required attendance for any thoroughbred trainer looking to succeed. In the ever-revolving world that Mandella and his team live in, there are scores of relationships weaving in and out of each other’s lives.

“What’s the rest of the world doing on a day like this” Mandella says as he walks along the track at Santa Anita Park at 5 am. Just a few minutes into the film and we begin to see where Yahraus and Rosenthal are taking us.

Several moments later Mandella allows us our first, brief glimpse into the focused life as a full-time horseman. “One time I took a day off from the track,” he begins slowly, “I slept in with my kids and got them dressed, fed them breakfast. It was strange, ya’ know…not being here at the track.”

Such internal struggles are only the beginning for the California native who grew up tending to tossed-away, injured horses as a young boy. But those internal demons Mandella reveals to us set the stage for the countless battles he must face everyday beginning at sunrise.

Trainer vs. Horse. Trainer vs. Asst. Trainer. Trainer vs. Press. Trainer vs. Rider. Trainer vs. Jockey Agent. Trainer vs. Barn. Trainer vs. Owner. Trainer vs. Nature.

These plot elements play out on screen as contrived Hollywood subplots and keep you interested and emotionally vested like an afternoon soap opera. It is only when you can step back and realize that this is no movie script or serial storyline that the true emotions of each character are fully understood. People’s lives are dictated by how fast 1,000 lb. animals run on a racetrack. This film slowly unveils an unsteady ride of emotion bouncing back and forth from joy to dismay; adulation to anger; exhaustion to exuberance.

Getting behind the scenes and peeling off unknown layers is always a fascinating experience. Documentaries can be beautiful anthropological, sociological, and psychological examinations that give new meaning to events and emotions that usually seem to be both simple and straightforward. Time after time, this film allows viewers with even the slightest bit of knowledge of the thoroughbred racing world true insight into both the physical and psychological workings of what it takes to run a horse racing operation.

In what may be the movie’s biggest flaw, the directors never take us away from the immediate surroundings of the racetrack. Visits to horse farms in Kentucky, training tracks in California, and glimpses of famous tracks like Churchill Downs and Oaklawn Park aside, we never get to see much of the off-track humanity of any of the main characters in their most raw, everyday normal settings: getting out of bed; sitting down for dinner with family members; or returning home from a long day the track.

Although the lives of these individuals plays out on a daily basis in a barn or on the track, glimpses into their lives off track would have given the viewer much needed depth and closure.

Whether it was an overt attempt or just a result of the footage, the strength of the film lies in the overall theme of the film: relationship management.

For the un-initiated "On the Muscle" provides an entertaining look at the complex workings of a racetrack and the folks that are its nuts and bolts. For experienced horse-folk, this movie will expand your mindset the next time you visit your local track, OTB, or sit down to read a Racing Form.

Over the course of the 172 minutes, Directors Yahraus and Roesnthal do a fine job illuminating the trials and tribulations of life in the paddock. Documenting “the stories of six elite athletes and their trainer poised on the brink of racing history” was certainly a monumental task. Narrowing the focus down and funneling the subject's human emotions lived through half ton animals is a triumph and a pleasure to ingest.

Do yourself a favor. Support independent filmmakers. Support the art of the documentary. Support the thoroughbred industry. Go to www.ponyhighway.com and drop the $34 for an entertaining, educational, non-fiction, eye-opening look at a life most of us can barely imagine.

1 comment:

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