Borel’s longshot win makes its way to big screen

Given their long association, producer and director Jim Wilson is never surprised to hear from Kevin Costner. But it seems that one of film’s great leading men is worried about famed jockey Calvin Borel, who plays himself in “50 to 1,” which opens this weekend in Louisiana and Texas.

“He’s (Costner) called me three times. ‘Keep him off the screen, because this guy is going to eat me up,’ ” Wilson said.

Of course, he was joking when Wilson and some of his cast and assistants visited Baton Rouge to promote the movie, which opens Friday.

Still, this unlikely film about an unlikely story benefits from an unlikely performer.

No one doubts Borel, a St. Martin Parish native who has more than 5,000 victories in his career, knows his way around a track. That is especially true of Churchill Downs, where he rode Mine That Bird to a stirring, upset victory in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, which forms the basis for “50 to 1.”

Riding is one thing. Acting is another.

“As a professional actor, I’m going, ‘Oh, what have we gotten ourselves into,’ ” said Christian Kane, who plays Mark Allen, one of Mine That Bird’s owners. “And it’s completely opposite. He steals the movie. I was so proud to work with him. He’s a funny guy. He’s a serious guy. He’s got all the emotions you need as an actor that he puts out there in real life. His smile is infectious.”

Borel, who lives in Louisville, Ky., and rides at tracks all over the country, wasn’t part of the media tour, but spoke by phone.

“I played myself, and it really wasn’t that hard. I don’t know if I could play somebody else,” Borel said. “I was more or less in my zone in the jocks’ room and dealing with the horse. I did a lot of stuff about the horse.”

Though Wilson has owned horses for 25 years and has attended thoroughbred races in California since boyhood, he leaned on Borel’s expertise, especially as it related to the Kentucky Derby, an event Borel has won three times.

“He kind of gave me the reins and said, ‘Calvin, just take over and explain to my guys what they need to do, and they’ll go from there,’ ” Borel said. “It brought back good memories. … What I love about the movie is it’s so real, and people are going to love that.”

Still, “50 to 1” is about much more than the colorful jockey, or even Mine That Bird, whose betting odds made his victory the second-biggest upset in Derby history.

Wilson, best-known for his work as producer of “Dances With Wolves,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Wyatt Earp” and other films starring Costner, made the movie about the similarly underdog cast of characters who rose from obscurity to horse racing history.

Skeet Ulrich stars as trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley, hired by co-owners Leonard “Doc” Blach (played by William Devane) and Allen. Their New Mexico base of operations and their personal stories were as far from Churchill Downs — geographically and otherwise — as imaginable.

“They’re all 50 to 1,” Kane said. “That was the odds against that horse in 2009. It was also the odds of Mark Allen, and it was also the odds of Chip Woolley and Doc Blach.”

Cast members include Madelyn Deutch, Todd Lowe, David Atkinson, Bruce Wayne Eckelman and Hugo Perez. Oh, and Sunday Rest, who was selected from 400 horses to portray Mine That Bird.

Kane, who grew up in Odessa, Texas, and Norman, Okla., said he has met a lot of characters like Allen, and admits he has shared Allen’s penchant for enjoying a drink and finding himself in bar fights.

“I didn’t have to step into his character,” he said. “I didn’t have to wear a mask. All I had to do was put on a cowboy hat.”

Wilson pitched the movie to every Hollywood studio and struck out. So, this is an independent film, whose lack of a promotional budget explains the unusual media tour in a bus that serves as a giant billboard.

The tour pays homage to the 1,500-mile trek Woolley took hauling Mine That Bird to Kentucky in a trailer behind his pickup.

“Nobody does this. How nuts are we?” co-producer Faith Conroy said.

“Maybe we are, but so are all these cast members. So are all the people coming out greeting us. We’re all crazy, then. It’s a great kind of crazy.”