Actress and Breeders' Cup Ambassador Elizabeth Banks Brings Star Power to the Races
From placing wagers with her father to hobnobbing with Hall of Fame jockeys and starring in the 2003 film Seabiscuit, Banks is more than your average spectator
If you’re one of those Del Mar Racetrack aficionados who finds the show in the grandstand just as riveting as the equine action, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup is bound to be your kind of event.
This year will mark the 33rd running of the race that crowns a North American Thoroughbred champion, held at the picturesque seaside San Diego venue for the first time. With a starting gate full of well-known hopefuls from America and abroad, the crowd on hand is sure to sparkle with athletes and celebrities flocking to participate in the two-day event.
Somewhere in the crowd will be actress Elizabeth Banks. Unbeknownst to many, the versatile 43-year-old star has been hitting the track since she was 10.
“I love the pageantry, the traditions, the clothes. It’s a magical place,” she says of big-time horse racing.
Banks has starred in such iconic films as Seabiscuit (2003), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Pitch Perfect (2012), and the Hunger Games series (2012–2015). She made her directorial debut with Pitch Perfect 2, and its opening weekend gross set a record for a first-time director.
Banks was born Elizabeth Mitchell in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. When she started in Hollywood, another actor already had that name, so she changed hers. Her family, she says, “didn’t grow up with much money, but I was surrounded by horses and farms as a kid.” She first got to ride horses in the Girl Scouts. She later took dressage lessons “in the off-season of midwinter, which I assume was more affordable.”
“We also brushed the horses and did some basic stall cleaning,” Banks says. “My horse’s name was Frenchie, and I remember being grateful that she gave off so much warmth when I was half-frozen during lessons in the open-air ring.”
When Banks was 10, she “inherited a passion for playing the ponies” after she began accompanying her father to the legendary Saratoga Race Course in New York. They made the hour and a half drive frequently.
“I would tell my dad which horses I liked and he’d place bets on my behalf,” she says. “Winning was the best feeling ever. It was even sweeter if my horse beat Dad’s.”
Banks discovered theater after she broke her leg playing Little League baseball. She went on to graduate magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving an MFA from the American Conservatory Theater, Banks acted in regional theaters, then began to win roles on TV shows like Scrubs. She got her big break in 2006, appearing alongisde Mark Wahlberg in the football tearjerker Invincible.
As her career blossomed and her family joined her in California, the Breeders’ Cup became a mainstay.
“My father hasn’t missed a Breeders’ Cup in 10 years. It’s our family tradition to go together,” Banks says.
When she earned a role in the movie Seabiscuit, her love of horse racing was cemented. The film is loosely based on the life and career of an underdog racehorse whose success made him a sensation during the Great Depression.
While filming at California’s Santa Anita Park, the most frequent home of the Breeders’ Cup, Banks says she became close with Hall of Fame jockeys Gary Stevens and Chris McCarron, who introduced her to the history of racing and track culture. She has stayed immersed and connected to the Breeders’ Cup ever since.
“The setting by the ocean makes Del Mar really special,” Banks says. “I can’t wait to come down.”