7 best horse movies to stream ahead of the Kentucky Derby

Tobey Maguire rides a horse in Seabiscuit
(Image credit: Alamy)

The first Saturday in May marks another Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. NBC’s coverage of the 150th Kentucky Derby — the first of 2024’s Triple Crown races — begins May 4 at 2:30 pm ET (streaming on Peacock). 

With the main event scheduled for a 6:57 pm ET start, you could choose to pre-game with films adapted from classic horse novels: e.g. 1944’s "National Velvet," 1979’s "The Black Stallion," 1994’s "Black Beauty," 2006’s "Flicka" or 2011’s "War Horse." We, however, would opt for the real-life drama of these horse movies and documentaries. 


The greatest racehorse that ever lived deserves the most re-watchable horse movie ever made. Diane Lane stars as fierce Penny Chenery, who takes on the boys’ club of thoroughbred racing in the early ‘70s. After her beloved breeder father (Scott Glenn) dies, the business-minded housewife refuses to sell her prized colt Big Red (aka Secretariat) to cover the inheritance tax on his Virginia estate and, instead, sells future breeding rights — promising investors that Secretariat will win the Triple Crown in 1973, a feat that hadn’t been done for 25 years.

Just like Big Red, everything in this 2010 film is built to last. The cast, including John Malkovich (as comic-relief trainer Lucien Laurin), Margo Martindale (as the no-nonsense secretary who named Secretariat), and the late Nelsan Ellis (as the kindhearted groomer), are pitch-perfect. Showoff Secretariat’s personality is larger than life. And even if you know that Bid Red won the Belmont Stakes by a record 31 lengths to cement his place in history, you’ll get chills. Every time.

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“You know, everybody thinks we found this broken down horse and fixed him,” says jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) at the end of this Best Picture nominee from 2003. ”But we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we kinda fixed each other, too.” Writer-director Gary Ross’s slow-burn script doubles as a history lesson setting the stage for the Great Depression: The undersized and overlooked Seabiscuit becomes a come-from-behind symbol of hope to his equally chippy jockey, his soulful trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), his grieving owner Charles S. Howard (Jeff Bridges), and the betting crowds who wanted a win for the little guy.

The race scenes are thrilling. Still, it’s the quieter moments that will stay with you, like a bedridden Red telling another jockey how to handle the Biscuit in the “race of the century” with War Admiral and, later, Red and an injured Biscuit lounging together in a field on their road to recovery and return to the Winner’s Circle. Randy Newman’s score will bring on the waterworks.

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'Dream Horse'

You don’t really think of horseracing dramas as intimate, but this 2020 charmer certainly is. It tells the story of 2009 Welsh Grand National champion Dream Alliance, a colt bred by Janet Vokes (the always wonderful Toni Collette), an empty-nester barmaid in search of a new reason to get up in the morning in her small Wales village. She and her couch-potato husband Brian (Owen Teale) partner with a disheartened desk jockey Howard (Damian Lewis), who sets up a syndicate to share the cost of Dream’s steeplechase training — giving their blue-collar neighbors a chance at rejuvenation as well. Cue the party bus!

Most horse films are about second chances. Since Dream’s story is lesser known, we won’t spoil what that means here. Just know that the dark turn has a happy ending and that you’ll want to stay through the credits for the cast singalong of Tom Jones’s “Delilah.”

Watch on Hulu

'Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story'

Loosely inspired, but it counts! Writer-director John Gatins got the idea for the 2005 family drama after hearing about the miraculous comeback of thoroughbred Mariah’s Storm, who fractured her leg in 1993 and recovered to race again with the help of her father-and-son trainers. In the movie, humbled trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) saves the promising filly Soñador from being put down after suffering the same injury. His plan to eventually breed her proves ill-fated, but another twist reveals Soñador’s racing career isn’t over after all. Ben’s daughter Cale (then 11-year-old Dakota Fanning) is the real dreamer here, believing Soñador should run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic — a race that requires a six-figure entry fee they don’t have. 

In truth, the return of Mariah’s Storm wasn’t quite as prestigious or triumphant as Soñador’s (though Mariah’s Storm was a successful broodmare, producing Giant's Causeway). You’ll forgive Gatlins for his storybook ending because, like Cale’s mother (Elisabeth Shue), you want to see the feisty tween’s passion stoked and Ben’s strained relationships with Cale and his grizzled horseman pop (Kris Kristofferson) healed. Also: bonus points for Soñador’s portrayer, Sacrifice, having her own spot in the credits.

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'Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken'

If you like your horse movies with a bit of romance, this 1991 coming-of-age flick is for you. The tender G-rated drama is inspired by the life of Sonora Webster Carver, who really did become an Atlantic City legend as a horse diver in the 1930s. She would mount a running horse at the top of a 40-foot tower and together, they’d dive into an 11-foot deep pool. Both the film (and Carver’s memoir) quickly establish that no horses were ever injured in the act. It’s Sonora, played by an effervescent Gabrielle Anwar, who suffers a retinal detachment and loses her sight. As seen in the film, she continued to dive for another 11 years after that.

"Pretty in Pink" and "Sixteen Candles" heartthrob Michael Schoeffling costars as Al Carver, the hunky trainer at odds with his gruff showman father (Cliff Robertson). The movie’s breezy 88-minute runtime is long enough to immortalize Sonora’s search for adventure, respectability, and love; her grit to hold onto her dreams; and her bond with her most trusted ride, Lightning.

Watch on Disney Plus

'Harry & Snowman'

Horses become a member of the family. That theme in "Dream Horse" and "Dreamer" is taken to new heights in this riveting 2015 documentary about a Cinderella steed named Snowman. In 1956, Dutch immigrant Harry deLeyer was working as a riding instructor at an all-girls school when he got a flat tire on his way to a last-chance auction of horses and arrived just as the unclaimed ones were loaded onto trucks headed for slaughter. He locked eyes with an eight-year-old Amish plow horse and purchased him for $80. DeLeyer reluctantly sold the gentle giant to a neighbor to fulfill a promise. But to everyone’s surprise, Snowman jumped a five-foot fence to return to deLeyer — three different times. Reunited for good, deLeyer turned the secret world-class jumper into a two-time Horse of the Year and massive media darling. Snowman also became the deLeyer family pet; he enjoyed swimming with the children and serving as their diving board.

Photographs and footage of the titular outliers’ rise in the high-society sport, not to mention Snowman’s emotional 1969 retirement ceremony in Madison Square Garden, are truly mesmerizing. So too is then 85-year-old deLeyer recounting how his family hid Jews in Holland during WWII, and he and others detailing the drive that would ultimately lead to him being nicknamed the Galloping Grandfather and becoming divorced. You’ll get an honest portrait of both man and horse. The story of their final moments together before Snowman’s death in 1974 will break (and warm) your heart. 

Watch on Prime Video


For another gripping watch, press play on this 2011 documentary about Buck Brannaman, the man who served as inspiration for Robert Redford’s performance in 1998’s “The Horse Whisperer” and as his double. The Sundance Audience Award winner follows Buck on the road while he leads clinics for ranchers and riders interested in learning his methods: You don’t “break” horses through intimidation; you “start” them using patience. Empathy is Buck’s true gift. Having grown up with an abusive father, he’s able to imagine and articulate how scared and confused a young horse can be because he too has feared for his life. He’s learned to control his emotions and work with horses, not against them. His calming technique is beautiful to behold, as is his willingness to share his own backstory.

The documentary, which also features interviews with friends, family, and Redford, makes sure you understand what Buck means when he says, “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” There’s one horse whose troubled owner has let him become so dangerous that even Buck’s valiant efforts can’t save him now. The situation will haunt you, but you’ll be a better person for hearing and heeding Buck’s words of wisdom.

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Mandi Bierly

After spending more than a decade as a reporter and writer at Entertainment Weekly and EW.com, Mandi served as an editor at Yahoo Entertainment and TV Guide Magazine. As a freelance writer, her work has appeared in The New York TimesTV Insider, Vulture, Thrillist, Billboard.com, ArchitecturalDigest.com, HBO.com, Yahoo.com, and now Tom’s Guide. She is an expert on Hallmark movies, Shark Week, and setting an alarm to watch the Olympics live.