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Back in the Saddle: How Jockey Connected a Dallas Filmmaker with His Roots

Clint Bentley's debut drama, which opens this week, was inspired by bittersweet memories of his father's career in horse racing.
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Clifton Collins Jr., star of Jockey Courtesy of Sony Pictures

From Seabiscuit to Secretariat, most horse racing movies bask in Triple Crown glamour and spotlight the celebrated equine athletes. Their riders are generally an afterthought. The low-budget drama Jockey, the directorial debut of Dallas filmmaker Clint Bentley, aims to change that — not by saluting the few in their profession who become household names, but the thousands who never do.

Bentley knows, because his late father, Robert, was a journeyman jockey for more than two decades who devoted his life to the sport he loved, often at great risk.

I grew up behind the barns. My earliest memories are watching him on a horse going into the gate,” Bentley said. “When you get a little older, you realize that this is a really strange, circus-like, beautiful subculture of America that we really haven’t seen in horse racing movies.”

The story follows an aging jockey (Clifton Collins Jr.) battling injuries as he tries to keep his career afloat at a low-level track. Although a top trainer (Molly Parker) continues to support him, his focus is compromised by a rookie rival (Moises Arias) claiming to be his son.

“He’s someone who has all this history with the sport, and has all these bruises and scars, and is defined by what he’s done on the track — to confront having to let go of that, the stakes were so vivid,” said co-writer Greg Kwedar, who is based in Austin. “He has to carry all that pain as a secret. You have to be able to walk with that limp and show that pain, and ultimately that becomes the path to connection.”

Bentley and Kwedar worked with Collins on their previous feature, Transpecos—which Kwedar directed—and wrote the title role specifically for him.

While researching the role, Collins became enamored with the sense of community and camaraderie among jockeys, as well as their mental and physical resilience when it comes to injuries. He also had to cut back his diet significantly to play a character who typically weighs less than 120 pounds in real life.

“I just embedded with the jockeys,” Collins said. “They’re pound-for-pound some of the toughest athletes on the planet. There’s a gravitas to what they go through, how they go through it, and how they proceed to deal with it.”

Most of the film was shot on location in 2019 at Turf Paradise, an active racetrack in Phoenix where attendance is dwindling, purse money is relatively low, and some aspects of the facility are in disrepair. But behind the scenes it’s still bustling with passionate jockeys, trainers, equine caretakers, and track workers who make a hard-earned living in the sport.

“It really took a track that was willing to buy in and give us that kind of access, especially with the sport under a lot of scrutiny and how dangerous it can be,” Kwedar said. “We weren’t interested creatively in the Triple Crown premium tracks. We wanted the blue-collar experience.”

Jockey expands upon Bentley’s 2017 short film, 9 Races, a similarly immersive look at an injured rider trying to endure one night filled with close calls. Using a small crew by design, the feature incorporated actual jockeys and their stories on screen, while some scenes also involved filming the actors before and after actual races.

“There was a level of reality that was really important to get across,” Bentley said. “Jockeys do this for very little money, but they risk everything. They’re riding down the track at 40 miles an hour on their tiptoes with 10 other horses around them. There’s a very meager chance that they’re going to break through. It felt very much like a cross-section of our society.”

Bentley’s father died in 2014 from ALS, which stemmed from some of his injuries during his riding career. It wasn’t until after his death that Bentley grasped the extent of the dangers that his father had hidden from him.

“Even as much as I tried to pretend that [Jockey] was about some other character, it definitely became a cathartic experience,” he said. “I feel like I got a connection to someone that I didn’t get when he was here.”

Jockey opens this week at Angelika Film Center locations in Dallas and Plano.


Todd Jorgenson

Todd Jorgenson

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