In vote for hearts, neighs have it

Mr. Ed isn't alone in speaking to us

Horse Racing

May 17, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun Reporter

If the dog is truly man's best friend, then where does that leave the horse? Without the horse, after all, it's hard to imagine what this country would look like, and that's not even taking into account the often-overlooked comedic brilliance of the talking-horse flick Hot to Trot, starring - using the most liberal definition of the word star - Bobcat Gold- thwait.

Horses have, quite literally, done some of the heaviest lifting in this country's history, from pulling Conestoga wagons across the prairie to delivering our mail via the Pony Express. With the advent of new technologies, horses may no longer be our laborers, but they continue to inspire some of our best prose, music, cinema and television. In honor of the 132nd running of the Preakness this week, we offer five of our favorite horse-inspired moments in pop culture, literature and song, plus a few extras.

1. Pie-O-My and Tony Soprano

When skeptics scratched their heads at the outpouring of affection for Barbaro last year, we couldn't help but chuckle and be reminded of Tony Soprano. One of television's toughest gangsters was overcome with despair after his beloved racehorse, Pie-O-My, was killed in a fire, possibly set by his least-trusted capo, Ralph Ciffaretto, during the fourth season of The Sopranos. When Tony's therapist attempted to probe the nature of his grief, implying that Tony's deeper affection for animals than people suggested larger issues, he responded in a manner that would make all fans of Barbaro proud: "Can't I just be sad for a horse without some touchy-feely Freudian [expletive] component to it?"

2. Mr. Ed

It's hard to believe there was actually a television show in the 1960s in which a horse could talk, but only his bumbling owner could hear him, and no psychedelic drugs were involved whatsoever. Perhaps the idea behind Mr. Ed was just innocent fun. Or perhaps Wilbur's relationship with Ed - when contrasted with the obvious intimacy issues he had with his wife, Carol - was meant to be a metaphor, helping further tear down the 1950s myth of idyllic suburban family life. Either way, we can all agree, the theme song, and the episode in which Ed went surfing, rocked.

3. The Black Stallion

On the surface, this movie, based on a classic children's novel by Walter Farley, has one of the most ridiculous plots ever. Let us attempt to summarize: Young boy and wild Arabian horse are the only survivors of a shipwreck. Boy and stallion begin to bond on tropical island when stallion stomps a cobra to death and boy feeds stallion seaweed. Boy and stallion become friends and are rescued. Boy trains to become a jockey with the help of Mickey Rooney. Stallion is very, very fast. With the help of the media, boy and his stallion are pitted in a match race against two champion racehorses. (A bit of a narrative leap, we agree, but stay with us.) Boy is scared. Midway through the two-lap race, stallion is, literally, 50 lengths behind the two champion horses ridden by professional jockeys. Instead of going to the whip, boy dreams of, once again, riding stallion on the tropical island. Stallion pins his ears back and wins the race by two lengths.

Improbably, it all works. Movie is nominated for two Academy Awards. Sequels are commissioned.

4. "Death of a Racehorse" by W.C. Heinz

Perhaps the finest piece of sportswriting ever produced on deadline, and it's only 960 words long. Do yourself a favor: Google it, soak up the lyrical meter of Heinz's beautiful sentences and see if you can get to the last line without tears in your eyes. Required reading for budding writers everywhere.

5. The Godfather and the head of Khartoum

Poor Jack Woltz. He didn't want to cast Johnny Fontane, a famous singer with mob ties, in one of his movies, and couldn't be persuaded until Vito Corleone told Tom Hagen to "make him an offer he can't refuse." Woltz woke up the next morning beside the severed head of his cherished racehorse, Khartoum, giving us one of the most famous quotes and scenes in cinema history.

Honorable mention

Misty of Chincoteague: This children's novel by Marguerite Henry about the wild horses that actually live on the island of Chincoteague (off the coast of Virginia) made girls everywhere bawl and beg their parents to take out a second mortgage and buy them a pony.

Horses by Patti Smith: Punk music had already been born by the time Smith's debut album came out in 1975, but Horses certainly helped kicked down the door and usher punk into the consciousness of America. Why is it called Horses? Interpretations vary, but Smith has been quoted as saying she felt like Paul Revere, riding around, waking up the people.

"Lisa's Pony," The Simpsons: In one of the truly classic Simpsons episodes, Homer attempts to buy his daughter's love by buying her a pony, Princess. But to get the money, he must ask for a loan from his boss, C. Montgomery Burns, leading to this exchange:

Burns: Are you acquainted with our state's stringent usury laws?

Homer: U... suary?

Burns: Silly me! I must have just made up a word that doesn't exist.

Animal House, Flounder and Neidermeyer's horse: It didn't start out as an act of animal cruelty, but it ended - sadly or hilariously, depending on your perspective - with a chainsaw. When D-Day and Bluto persuaded Flounder to shoot Neidermeyer's horse in Dean Wormer's office, they handed him a gun full of blanks. But Flounder still killed the horse by firing the gun into the ceiling, giving the horse a heart attack.

Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son. Riding on the back of a horse, even a horse with no name, is a much better way to travel through this vast desert we call life.

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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