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Sneaks 2003

Going to great lengths

There may have been only one Seabiscuit, but it takes a full stable to re-create his race with War Admiral.

January 19, 2003|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Lexington, Ky. — Nostrils flaring, heads bobbing, the two thoroughbreds barrel past the grandstands and head into the clubhouse turn, their hoofs kicking up pancake-sized globs of mud from a rain-soaked track. Mountain Skier, a small bay wearing blinker eyecups with jockey Gary Stevens in the irons, has bolted off the starting line to take a surprising 2 1/2-length lead, but Verboom, a tall, black beauty with Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron astride, is about to make his move.

In the grandstands and down on the infield, throngs of women decked out in chic wide-brimmed hats and fancy furs scream and clap and bounce up and down on their toes, while men in fedoras and long, woolen overcoats -- a stark palette of blacks, grays and browns -- lean over the inside rail, thrust their arms skyward and shout the horses on at the top of their lungs.

"Here they come," says director Gary Ross as the horses thunder into view and more than 4,000 movie extras massed in the grandstands and across the turf track erupt in wild cheers. "Run, run, run, run, run!" he now yells, caught up in the emotion of the moment.

Then the director notices something amiss. The horses are performing magnificently, but now the human contingent of race fans is too late running across the infield grass toward the sprinting horses.

It is a numbing 36 degrees on a Sunday morning in mid-November and Hollywood has come to historic Keeneland Race Course deep in Kentucky bluegrass country to film a key scene from the upcoming film "Seabiscuit," the big-screen adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller "Seabiscuit: An American Legend."

As it turns out, the crowd glitch won't affect the movie. Ross already has a perfectly fine take of this scene in the can. But it illustrates the daunting challenges the filmmakers face trying to keep the horses and humans in sync during the race sequences being filmed -- the kind of challenges "Seabiscuit" has faced almost from Day One.

From the months-long quest to cast Seabiscuit -- in which wranglers combed barns across the country before ending up with more than 40 horses to portray the "star" and his equine cronies -- to the complexity of re-creating some of the legendary stallion's most famous races, the "Seabiscuit" shoot now underway through mid-February has presented Ross and his team with more hurdles than a steeplechase.

Thoroughbreds, going against their nature, had to learn to pull up after sprints of only three furlongs each time the director called, "Cut!" Human actors had adjustments to make, too. Tobey Maguire lost more than 20 pounds of his "Spider-Man" bulk and worked out on a mechanical contraption called an Equicizer to star as Seabiscuit's jockey, Johnny "Red" Pollard.

And underlying the whole enterprise is the question of whether a tale of thoroughbred racing can ignite contemporary passions the way it did in the '30s, when superstar horses like Seabiscuit rivaled today's celebrity athletes in the popular imagination.

If the movie can overcome the obstacles, it's on track to be one of the prestige studio offerings of 2003.

"Seabiscuit" also stars Jeff Bridges as the thoroughbred's visionary owner, Charles Howard, and Chris Cooper as the taciturn and mysterious trainer, Tom Smith. It features Elizabeth Banks as Marcela Howard, the owner's porcelain-skinned wife, and William H. Macy as "Tick Tock" McGlaughlin, a Walter Winchell-type commentator and race handicapper.

A joint production of Universal Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment, the film is scheduled to open July 25 in the U.S.

Here at Keeneland, the filmmakers are facing the hurdles of time, the uncertainties of racehorses and humans, and the fickleness of bad weather to complete filming what many consider the greatest thoroughbred race ever staged -- the Nov. 1, 1938, match race held at Pimlico in Baltimore, Md., that pitted the regal Triple Crown winner War Admiral against the roughhewn, undersized Seabiscuit.

Universal, which is distributing the film in North America, is gambling that the action sequences sprinkled throughout the movie and Maguire's box-office appeal will lure young people into the seats along with the adult demographic. But "Seabiscuit" will be going head-to-head against the sequel "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life," and a big question is whether younger audiences will embrace a horseracing movie set during the Great Depression when action hero Croft is smashing bad guys to bits in the next theater.

"I think the challenge is in the subject matter, but two words make a difference in marketing this movie -- Tobey Maguire," Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co., said of "Seabiscuit's" outlook. " 'Seabiscuit' is going to skew a little older with the audience, so it can't hurt to have him in the movie."

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