Damien Oliver (Stephen Curry), a young jockey, loses his only brother in a tragic racing accident in the same way their father died 27 years earlier. After suffering through a series of defeats, Damien teams up with Irish trainer Dermot Weld (Brenden Gleeson), and triumphs at the 2002 Melbourne Cup in one of the most thrilling finales in sporting history.

Tale of a Melbourne Cup triumph is reduced to a corny horse opera.

Virtually everyone who follows racing and even those with a passing interest in the 'sport of kings’ will be familiar with the premise of The Cup: jockey Damien Oliver wins the 2002 Melbourne Cup a week after his older brother Jason dies in a racetrack accident.

Therein lies one fundamental problem with Simon Wincer’s movie. The director and co-writer strives mightily to tease out the suspense as Damien (Stephen Curry) agonises over whether or not to fulfil his commitment to ride Media Puzzle in the race.

Except there’s zero suspense: We know what he decided and we know who won.

So if the pricy melodrama (reported budget $17.5 million) has any chance of connecting with mainstream filmgoers, including those whose interest in the sport extends merely to taking part in the office sweep or phoning in a bet on Cup day, it must stand as a compelling saga of courage and overcoming adversity.

On that criterion, sadly, the tale of a champion thoroughbred and a plucky jockey is both a plodder and a corny horse opera.

There’s a lot of galloping – tediously so for non-racing aficionados – but the narrative’s pace rarely breaks into a canter.

The performances, most notably by Curry, Daniel MacPherson as Jason, Brendan Gleeson as Irish trainer Dermot Weld and Tom Burlinson as Weld’s foreman Dave Phillips, are perfectly adequate but let down by uninspiring, mundane dialogue.

Other characters including Colleen Hewett as the Oliver’s mother Pat, Jodi Gordon as Damien’s fiancee Trish, Martin Sacks as his manager Neil Pinner and Alice Parkinson as Jason’s wife Jenny, are given short shrift.

In his final movie, Bill Hunter wears an ill-fitting wig and is wasted as trainer Bart Cummings, uttering a few lines including the typically banal, 'Anything can happen, it’s the Melbourne Cup".

Shaun Micallef acquits himself well as Damien's mentor, trainer Lee Freedman, who seems jealous of the gruff, uncompromising Weld.

The screenplay by Wincer and his co-writer, US journalist Eric O’Keefe, is riddled with clichés, typified by one scene in which Damien is told, 'Being a champion is not about winning, it’s gutsing it out."

The director ladles out the pathos in highly predictable ways. For example, as Jason lies dying in a hospital bed, there’s a close-up of the heart monitor flat-lining. In a flashback, Pat recalls the terrible day 27 years earlier when her husband Ray, a jockey, perished in similar circumstances, their two young sons waiting outside the hospital room.

One scene in which the brothers attend an AFL match seems mostly an excuse to feature commentators Eddie McGuire and Dennis Cometti and to introduce North Melbourne player Jason McCartney, later seen (played by Rodger Corser) displaying the horrible burns he suffered in the Bali bombings.

Bruce Rowland’s score is similarly heavy-handed: there’s an Irish lilt in sequences set in Ireland, an Arabic flavour to scenes in Dubai and swirling orchestrals for the heart-tugging moments.

Curry is too tall to pass for a jockey but he slimmed down to at least get the build right. He’s an accomplished actor and is convincing within the limitations of the script, particularly as Damien grieves his brother’s death. Thankfully he uses his own voice instead of imitating the squeaky, high-pitched tone that’s common among the jockey fraternity.

However, the scenes where he’s meant to be thundering along on various horses are amateurishly shot, reminiscent of those old Westerns where all you see is the actor’s head and shoulders bobbing up and down and the horse’s ears.

Self-indulgently, Wincer includes a scene in which Weld recounts the story of Phar Lap to Saeed Bin Suroor (Harli Ames), the Middle Eastern trainer of Media Puzzle’s rival Pugin – a reference to Wincer’s 1983 movie Phar Lap.

Horses have been a recurring motif in Wincer’s career with Phar Lap, The Lighthorsemen and 2003’s The Young Black Stallion, his most recent feature. After The Cup, it might be time to avoid the nags for a while, Simon.

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1 hour 46 min
Thu, 03/01/2012 - 11