An Oscar for jocks

Dec 3, 2002 6:04 AM

   If the movie “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” turns out half as good as the book, it could win an Academy Award.

   Universal Pictures is sparing no expense on the film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, which describes in idyllic prose the saga of Seabiscuit, a once-scorned thoroughbred whose spirit ultimately willed him to glory at racing’s highest echelon.

   Seabiscuit was given up as a lost cause by the august Wheatley Stable and its legendary trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, back in the mid-1930s, but a paragraph from the book’s inside cover jacket says it better:

   “Seabiscuit was an unlikely champion. He was a rough-hewn, undersized horse with a sad little tail and knees that wouldn’t straighten all the way. At a gallop, he jabbed one foreleg sideways, as if he were swatting flies. For two years, he fought his trainers and floundered at the lowest level of racing, misunderstood and mishandled, before his dormant talent was discovered by three men.”

   And that’s just an appetite-whetter. “Seabiscuit” is a gripping read. You don’t have to be a horse racing fan to enjoy it. That’s why it was on No. 1 on the New York Times’ best-sellers’ list for months.

   Universal currently is in the midst of shooting extensive Seabiscuit footage at Santa Anita, and has the track virtually at its disposal until the 85-day winter/spring meeting begins on Dec. 26.

   A large portion of the mezzanine floor in the grandstand is occupied by wardrobe, with rack upon rack of vintage clothing from the 1930s. Sections of the backstretch and the finish line area have been permeated by an atmosphere of seven decades ago. Walk-ons, some who signed on for free, and others who receive $100 a day, act in obscure but necessary supporting roles. The grandstand is dotted with dummies dressed as racegoers, with painted shirts and ties, nondescript faces, and fedoras d’jour. Then there is the Real McCoy, like Tobey Maguire of “Spiderman” the movie fame, who plays the lead, jockey Red Pollard, Seabiscuit’s regular rider.

   Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron not only portrays jockey Charley Kurtsinger, but he’s a major consultant for the film. Gary Stevens is on sabbatical from riding to play the role of George (The Iceman) Woolf.

   Several other riders from the Southern California jockey colony are participating in the movie, including Joe Steiner, who not only is in several of the riding sequences, but filled in for Stevens when needed.

   “I spent eight days in Lexington when they filmed Seabiscuit’s match race against War Admiral,” Steiner said. “I was Gary’s double. He did most of the scenes himself, because there were a lot of closeup face shots, and of course they needed to see his face. McCarron was the rider on War Admiral. The scene went really well. I’d take positions when they had to set up for camera angles and lighting, and I was kind of stand-in for Gary, also.”

   Not that Steiner didn’t have his moments.

   “There were a couple times when Gary was tired or his knees were bugging him, so I did a scene for him on horseback down the backside and one at the finish,” Steiner said.

   Joey’s show business days are behind him, but at the moment, his peers remain on call.

   “Some of these guys are taking three months off from riding to work on the film,” said Steiner, 38, a native of Renton, Washington. “But I wanted to get back to riding. Luckily, my business is picking up.

   “I made good money as a stunt rider in the movie, like $3,000 a week. Gary’s getting paid a pretty good salary, I guess. Most of the jockeys they’ve got are pretty good riders — Kenny Black, Corey Black, Alan Patterson, Paul Atkinson, Gallyn Mitchell. They’ve won thousands of races.”

   That’s more than can be said for the horses. They might be billed as Seabiscuit and War Admiral, but most of the nags in the flick couldn’t outrun a fat man, as the saying goes.

   “The horses are cheap claimers, maybe $3,000 claimers they bought for that much, so they’re not that easy to work with,” Steiner said. “They need good riders on them. That’s why they hired experienced jockeys to do the scenes. The movie is going to be very realistic. Some of the people who have worked on it think it could be one of the best movies they ever made.

   “One part I saw edited is called the Bug Boy scene. It was filmed at Hemet (California) and one of the riders was Red Pollard as a youngster. The other jock and Red were hitting each other with their whips, and one rider fell. Pollard is getting abused left and right and ends up getting beat a head in the race. The trainer gets mad at him. It’s a good scene and kind of neat.”

   One word of advice.

   Bring a hanky when you see the movie, which is scheduled for release next July. According to someone who’s seen the script, the final scene is a real tear-jerker.