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One-track mind

Before directing 'Seabiscuit,' Gary Ross had a love for the races.

July 23, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Gary Ross sits inside a horse veterinarian's truck, fishtailing around the corners of Hollywood Park's main track. A dull roar rises from the bettors in the distant grandstands as the field for the seventh race enters the stretch. Ross has a big bet on Bay Town Boy, but from inside the vet's truck, which trails the horses in case one breaks down, it's impossible to tell who will win.

The filmmaker is here for pleasure, not business, but somehow it all feels a bit like directing a movie: The wager is large, the outcome either exhilarating or heartbreaking, but certainly beyond control. As the truck skids in the dirt through the last turn, it's also scary. "But," the director says, "this is the best place to watch a race."

"Seabiscuit," Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller, tells the story not only of an astonishing race horse but also chronicles racing's hidden world, where trainers magically coax blazing speed from previously lumbering colts, jockeys starve themselves thin and broken people and animals are made whole in a furious dash between starting gate and finish line. The racetrack, in her book and in real life, is a populist phenomenon, where the joy and pain of the $2 bettor is as intense as the millionaire Hollywood part-owner of a Kentucky Derby contender.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Director story -- An article in some editions of today's Calendar section on "Seabiscuit" director Gary Ross refers incompletely to rules governing whether jockeys can bet on their own horses to win. The California Horse Racing Board says a jockey can make such wagers, but that bets need to be placed by the horse's owner or trainer.

Spending a night at the races with Ross, who adapted Hillenbrand's book and directed "Seabiscuit," offers its own distinctive vantage points on the track and the man. But first, the betting windows beckon.

Sitting in a clubhouse box with a beer and peanuts, Ross scans the field for the second race. "None of these horses are any good," Ross says, quickly inspecting the Daily Racing Form. Almost all the top jockeys, including "Seabiscuit" co-star Gary Stevens, are taking the night off. Journeymen riders like David Nuesch and Luis Jauregui, both of whom were stunt doubles in the film, have several mounts apiece.

Ross bets a series of complicated trifectas, which require picking the exact order of finish for the first three horses. "Stop the race!" he yells, when his three horses are in the right lineup down the backstretch. The final results are much different, however, and Ross doesn't cash any of his exotic bets. But a covering wager on The Lawyer, who finishes second, leaves him even.

"When you see horses with your heart, that's what makes racing fun," Ross says between races. "But that's not how you should gamble. The amount that I have bet on horses has gone down dramatically since I started making the movie."

Personal passion

Some directors make movies about subjects they don't fully understand. Others inherit films abandoned at the last minute by different filmmakers. With "Seabiscuit," which opens Friday, Ross was able to make a film that had been near the center of his life for years. Hillenbrand's book was not history for Ross. It was his passion since childhood.

As a "rite of passage," Ross was taken to Santa Anita by his parents on his 13th birthday. "In high school I had a friend who was a mathematical genius and a compulsive gambler. So we went a lot." Ross and his wife, producer Allison Thomas, became track regulars in the late 1980s watching Mister Frisky, a $15,000 Puerto Rican horse who eventually won 16 straight races.

Ross considers Secretariat's crushing win of the 1973 Belmont, in which the horse broke the track record by a whopping two and three-fifths seconds and won the Triple Crown by 31 lengths, the greatest sports performance ever.

As much as he loves racing, though, Ross was not until recently an owner. But rather than test the waters with some obscure filly picked out of a claiming race, Ross' first plunge was a whopper. He owns a partial share in Atswhatimtalknbout, who raced in this year's Kentucky Derby, where the colt finished fourth.

"I'll never do that again," Ross, 46, says of his investment. "It's such a unique, electrifying experience, and to go all the way to the Kentucky Derby. I could never duplicate that again."

Behind the scenes

Both Hillenbrand's book and Ross' movie celebrate the underdog, the ennobling power of hard work and optimism. On this night at the track, Ross is drawn not to the ritzy turf club, but to people like Nuesch and Jauregui. On a great night, they each might have one winner, and take home $500. And with one stumble, careers can end.

"When I made the movie, I learned a lot about how unbelievably dangerous their jobs are," says Ross, who wrote "Big" and "Dave" and wrote and directed "Pleasantville." "It's the most dangerous sport in the world," Ross says. Joe Steiner, who worked as a stunt rider in the film, was injured racing at Santa Anita after filming completed, breaking the orbital bone of his right eye, his nose, a front tooth, and his right foot.

Staying healthy isn't the only challenge. "If you don't win, you don't get paid, and you don't eat," Ross says. "And yet there is this amazing camaraderie. It's like golf. Except you can't get killed playing golf."

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