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Racing Through the Century:
The Story of Thoroughbred Racing in America

. "Seabiscuit"

The Seabisquit story is a great yarn, one that lends itself to romanticizing one of the most troubled and desperate times in America. And director Gary Ross does it well enough to convince you, here in the 21st Century, that every person in the country, down to the most reduced by circumstances, had racing and the Seabiscuit phenomenon on their minds. Oddly, that's almost true. Gambling is a big draw in bad economic times and, if that weren't enough, you have the unexpected victories of a beat up jockey riding a beat up horse to elevate downtrodden spirits.

With such mythical elements, director Gary Ross puts together a warm and handsome production, a beautiful cast and a well structured script that has the right chemistry for a mainstream shot in the arm that drills through the period pic cliches.

It starts on a virtual PBS channel as the estimable narrator David McCullough takes us through the black and white years when cars replaced horses as a mode of transportation, when the pre-crash atmosphere was a Charleston dance. and when production line worker Charles Howard turned himself into a baronial entrepreneur capable of seeing himself through the stock market crash as a still well-heeled racehorse owner.

As a somewhat oversimplified story would condense it, he had a keen eye for the special quality in men and zeroed in on the two he needed faster than a speeding casting director. From afar he spots horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) stroking one that he had rescued from the glue factory. "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little," he states in his quiet, credo-expressing way. That's good, 'cause it's the theme of the movie.

It applies as well to the well worn down jockey they wind up with, Johnny "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a man with innate racing talent that's been submerged under a sea of bad luck. He's the human long shot to match Howard's acquisition of a horse that everyone's crossed off their possibility sheet, the well pedigreed and underperforming Seabiscuit.

Aside from the grand sweep of the story, there are little building blocks that provide interesting insight into the world of horseracing. I particularly liked the detail of how carefully oversized Pollard (for a jockey) controlled his diet. In a dinner scene with lavish heaps of food, we see him barely eating. Later, when he thinks he's lost his mount, he gorges to make up for lost nourishment. And, when it looks like destiny will put him on a horse again, he goes virtually bulimic again.

Another nicely observed part of jockey behavior is the cursory acknowledgement of competing riders when meeting on the track for the first time. Hmmmpph, a nod. Nothing more said. Nice observation of such a moment, with the feel of reality.

Maguire does it again, with his quiet, gentle, sensitive guy that we responded to in "Cider House Rules", and again the unlikely athlete as in "Spiderman." He has a way to make you put doubts about physical prowess aside. Jeff Bridges fills the screen with the solidity he patented for "Tucker" and Chris Cooper enriches the saga with his dependable unswervability.

Venturing further down the cast list, we come to an over-the-top William H. Macey as a race announcer cum carny huckster and Elizabeth Banks in a window dressing role as Howard's dutiful wifey.

Like said, it's a great yarn, told in such a way as to envelope you in its inspirational arms, encouraging a root-for-the-underdog response. It touches all the sports drama requirements without getting into anything sick or twisted enough to compromise the PG-13 rating. And, though Seabiscuit might not be War Admiral at the boxoffice, it shouldn't have too great a hit handicap either.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack (Randy Newman)


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Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks and Jeff Bridges
Troubled times

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