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‘Seabiscuit’ the movie: ‘Rocky’ of racing rings true

Jul 15, 2003 4:17 AM

"Seabiscuit" opens next Friday. Bring a hanky.

This movie isn’t "A Day at the Races."

The Universal film is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book about a thoroughbred hero from the post-Depression era of more than six decades ago. It will tug at the heart of all but the most cynical viewer. Rocinante has nothing on Seabiscuit.

Consider this, from the inside jacket of the book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend:"

"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.

"One was Red Pollard, a failed prizefighter and failing jockey who had been living in a horse stall since being abandoned as a boy at a makeshift racetrack. Another was Tom Smith, ”˜The Lone Plainsman,’ an enigmatic mustang breaker who had come from the vanishing frontier, bearing generations of lost wisdom about the secrets of horses. The third was a cavalry veteran named Charles Howard, a former bicycle repairman who had made a fortune by introducing the automobile to the American West.

"In the sultry summer of 1936, Howard bought Seabiscuit for a bargain-basement price and entrusted him to Smith and Pollard. Using frontier training methods that raised eyebrows on the backstretch, they discovered that beneath the hostility and fear was a gentlemanly horse with keen intelligence, awe-inspiring speed, and a ferocious competitive will. It was the beginning of four years of extraordinary drama, in which Seabiscuit overcame a phenomenal run of bad fortune to become one of the most spectacular performers in sports history."

The movie starring "Spiderman" Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard is expected to boost interest in an industry whose live fan base has diminished along with its media exposure for the past quarter century.

At least that’s the hope of everyone in racing, among them former jockey Corey Black, now an analyst for home account racing network TVG. Black, 34, retired on Nov. 26, 2000. He played an indistinct yet significant part in "Seabiscuit," much of which was filmed at storied Santa Anita late last year. Seabiscuit made Santa Anita his home for much of his career and won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap after two previous losses.

The film’s authenticity will be scrutinized by racing aficionados, who will not be of a mind to tolerate the tomfoolery of the Marx Brothers in this ode to racing at its most artistic and realistic. Chris McCarron, a Hall of Fame jockey with 7,141 wins, was a consultant in the film, and another Hall of Fame rider, Gary Stevens, makes an auspicious acting debut in the role of jockey George (The Iceman) Woolf. McCarron also is in the film, portraying War Admiral’s jockey, Charley Kurtsinger, in the match race with Seabiscuit.

"I’ve seen some of the dailies and it’s pretty cool footage," Black said. "Everyone who rode in any of the racing scenes said it was very authentic, other than one segment done in Santa Barbara, where they used some stunt guys. Everybody in racing silks that I saw, at least in (the filming done in) Southern California, had ridden races, so everybody had either been a jockey or still was a jockey.

"People in the racing business are the ones who will critique the authenticity a lot more than the average movie-goer. The every-day person will be more concerned with the movie itself and the story line. The racing people will take a much harder look at how realistic it is. But I thought we did a pretty good job."

Black is one of countless faceless players in the film, not counting the mannequins used to fill the grandstand seats in some of the shots at Santa Anita.

"My role was no different from (jockey) Luis Jauregui or anybody else," Black said. "I was just an obscure jockey who happened to get picked by the luck of the draw to ride Rosemont (who defeated Seabiscuit in the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap). That will be my claim to fame, but I didn’t get that part by anything I did. It was just by chance that I got to ride Rosemont."

The drama and action flow smoothly and readily, although "Seabiscuit" understandably took months to complete. For its many extras, at times the military credo, "Hurry Up and Wait" was apropos.

"I had heard how slow the movie-making process was and I saw it first-hand," Black said. "It takes time for all the cameras to be set up for a scene. Naturally, concern for the horses came first and there was a lot of waiting for them to recuperate between takes, in addition to taking time to establish camera angles and make changes of film. There’s a lot of technical stuff to set up. Movie-making is so precise that it just takes time."

No matter how much time was consumed for "Seabiscuit," the brow-beaten game will only benefit from the film.

"It can only be good for racing," Black said.

Put it his way: if the movie is half as good as the book, it will be an unqualified winner. But bring a hanky.

I got misty-eyed watching the trailer.