Seabiscuit, the movie opened nationwide on July 25, breathing life into the legacy of the most famous racehorse of all time. Crowds were lined up at the theaters waiting to see this old-fashioned heart-warming story.

Seabiscuit Movie Races to Victory

By Rusty Goe

August 1, 2003

In 1998, Laura Hillenbrand's American Heritage article on Seabiscuit won the Eclipse Award for Magazine Writing. Two years later, her book entitled Seabiscuit, an American Legend debuted. Immediately, the book hit the bestseller list, and in no time, Hollywood seized the opportunity, and a movie was in the works. Thanks to the loyal commitment of Gary Ross, the director, and a dedicated staff totally behind the project, a heartwarming movie was produced. This full length feature film opened to enthusiastic crowds of movie patrons on July 25.

Advance reactions to the movie had been positive, but it still remained to be seen how many people would be interested in a story about a racehorse. When audiences were lined up to buy tickets all doubt was gone. And while in the theater, viewers actually applauded and cheered during several different exciting scenes.

In the early years of the 21st century, when moviemakers rely so heavily upon action, violence, foul language, and strong sexual content to draw audiences into the theaters, it is refreshing to see a film like Seabiscuit which is suited for the whole family. Hopefully this will give Hollywood a wake-up call to make more movies like it.  Not that Seabiscuit is lacking in the above, for it certainly has its share. Most of the horse racing scenes are as action-filled and violent as can be, and the jockey's cuss too. There is even a racy part in the movie at a whorehouse in Tijuana, although it is tastefully filtered through a standard of decency rarely seen in films anymore.

Though the story of Seabiscuit is more than 60 years old, the message is timeless. It is a story of triumph against all odds, not just by the horse, but by the people closely associated with to him. If it was not a true story, it might come across as a bit contrived, maybe even overly sentimental. But that is where Hillenbrand's narrative and director Gary Ross's devotion to her story play such a vital part. They simply tell what actually happened and everything else falls into place.

From 1936 through 1940, Seabiscuit captivated America by winning races. Many other horses had achieved similar success, but Seabiscuit rose to fame in defiance of probability. He had practically been abandoned after his first two seasons at the racetrack because of his seeming lack of talent and uninspired obstinacies. Seabiscuit's first owner would have been satisfied to sell him as a riding pony, if there was anyone naïve enough to take him.

Then when the time came, a team of three men totally unrelated to one another came together and discovered the true potential of the "Biscuit" and set him on his winning path. Like the story suggests, "the horse was too small, the jockey was too tall, the trainer was too old, and the owner was too dumb to know the difference." It is from these negative circumstances that victories abounded. And not without setbacks, for just when things seemed to be going good, tragedy struck. But this is where the saga strengthens in momentum, as the key players must pick themselves up and get back in the race. Moreover, it set up a climax, that had it not really happened, people would walk out saying, "That’s impossible." But on March 18th, 1940 this climatic event made the headlines in every newspaper in the major cities in the United States. This is why Laura Hillenbrand says the story of Seabiscuit is an American legend.

Casting for the movie proved effective for the most part. Tobey McGuire stepped out of himself to play the down and out jockey Johnny "Red" Pollard. Gary Ross, who also directed McGuire in Pleasantville, has said that he wrote the part specifically for Tobey, and since the movie is such a success, Ross must be given credit for his casting selection. In real life, McGuire is much too young looking to play Red Pollard; this being ironic, since he is the same age Pollard was when he rode Seabiscuit. But Pollard was just one of those people who always looked old, and Ross could have used an actor in his 40s to play the part of the 27-year-old jockey. Specific details aside, the movie loses nothing by McGuire's presence.

Another main character is trainer Tom Smith, played admirably by Chris Cooper. Thanks to make-up artists and clothes designers, Cooper aged at least 20 years for the part. In real life, Tom Smith would have been old enough to be Cooper's father, nevertheless, the actor was convincing as a senior citizen. One of Cooper's signature characteristics is his quiet and reserved demeanor, which was so well suited for the role of the man they called "Silent" Tom Smith.

Jeff Bridges and Elizabeth Banks performed well as Seabiscuit's owners Charles and Marcella Howard, especially in one of the final scenes when Mrs. Howard was too nervous to watch the big race with her husband who sat in their box seats. Instead, she stood outside the racetrack with her fingers crossed, probably uttering up prayers.

One of the smaller roles in the film was that of famous jockey George Woolf, played so naturally by real life Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens. After winning nearly 4800 races, including three Kentucky Derbys, Stevens knows how to swagger around a racetrack, just like the character he plays once did. In 45 years of watching movies I don't remember seeing a real athlete perform a part as an onscreen athlete as well as Stevens does in Seabiscuit. His presence adds a lot to the movie's authenticity.

Also adding to the incredible authenticity is the breathtaking cinematography. The horseracing is live, as cameras traveled right alongside the horses around the track. Nit pickers will most likely point out that some of the riding scenes were filmed on mechanical horses, but if you keep your mind on the movie, you probably won't even notice.

Overall, this movie is a sports film classic. It should reach an audience that has never experienced the excitement of horseracing action, and maybe draw some new fans into the sport. Often referred to as the "Sport of Kings," horseracing used to be more popular than baseball or football in America. When Seabiscuit ran some of his biggest races in 1938 and 1940, as many as 45 million people had their ears glued to their radios. Every year from May through June, the Triple Crown races are run attracting large audiences, and for the past 20 years on the last Saturday in October, the World Thoroughbred Championships are run, with purse money exceeding $11 million. Interest stimulated by Seabiscuit might encourage more people to tune in, and hear that familiar line, "And there they go!"