Seabiscuit—the real thing

“Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?… He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength… He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage… He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.” —Job 39:19-25, excerpts

Take the Cinderella story, change the gender to male, put the hero in equine form; instead of a fairy godmother, put in three male benefactors, and don’t forget to add a touch of magic. And by the way, it’s a true story.

Seabiscuit, the Gary Ross film now playing at Showplace 16, provides all the heart-thumping excitement of the Triple Crown—and a little something more. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, the movie depicts the rags-to-riches tale of a hard-luck horse who found three unlikely human friends who joined forces to form a winning team.

These were the Depression years. Americans were in the midst of hard times, and people were struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. But if this era was rough on humans, it was even more so for a horse that it seemed nobody wanted. That’s why the new owner, bicycle shop entrepreneur Charles Howard, got him so cheap. Then there was the unconventional old trainer, Tom Smith. And how about the jockey-cum-prizefighter, Johnny “Red” Pollard? He was said to be too big, and as would be revealed later after a heart-stopping loss, blind in one eye.

Not all gambling takes place at the mutuel window. This unlikely trio and their horse were regarded as something of a joke by the Eastern aristocrats of horse racing. If racing was the sport of kings, they had no place for this ridiculous pretender. As owner Howard put it succinctly, “The horse is too small, the jockey’s too big, the trainer’s too old, and I’m too dumb to know the difference.”

It wasn’t that Seabiscuit didn’t have good breeding. He was the son of Hardtack, who was sired by Man O’War, another Triple Crown winner. But poor handling had taken a toll and made the horse seemingly intractable. When Howard first bought him, all that was apparent was the “fierceness and rage” as in the Scripture quotation. The “swallowing the ground” part would come later—much later—after being rehabilitated by a trainer whom some considered a “crackpot.” But the hardy little horse blossomed under Smith’s careful hand. Watch the slow early tempo change; with the clang of the starting bell, Seabiscuit takes off running.

There is hardly a more thrilling moment than when Seabiscuit finally defeats War Admiral decisively at Pimlico in the much-publicized match race. But for a while, it looked like this “Cinderella” would never get an invitation to dance at the ball. After all, Sam Riddle, War Admiral’s owner, knew that he had the best horse in the country—a Triple Crown winner, no less—and Seabiscuit didn’t even belong in the same league with him. But eventually, enticed by an extravagant purse, Riddle finally gave his consent.

Then, as sometimes happens, a tragic turn of fate almost caused the race to be canceled. When jockey Red Pollard was injured while helping a friend breeze out another horse, it looked like the long-awaited match race could never occur. Pollard then called on his friend, veteran jockey George Wolf, to replace him in the saddle. And thanks to some unconventional night-time training, they were equal to the task.

Jockey Pollard is convincingly and sympathetically played by Tobey Maguire. The bond between man and horse is most evident when, both recovering from injuries, they limp along together with their bandaged legs. The trainer, Smith, as portrayed by Chris Cooper, seems somewhat of a cross between the Horse Whisperer and the late Charlie Whittingham, who achieved two legs of the Triple Crown with Sunday Silence in 1989. Charles Howard, portrayed by Jeff Bridges, exhibits all the struggles of a man trying to hold his family together in tough times. William H. Macy as Sam Riddle is totally pompous and overbearing as War Admiral’s owner—the big rich guy who thought he knew it all.

The movie has a few rough edges—occasional profanity, and blood flows in the prizefighting scenes. But a heartwarming quality shines through—a paean to the little guy who made good, sort of an equine Horatio Alger tale. As Charles Howard so aptly puts it, “They think we took a broken-down horse and fixed him. But that’s not true. He fixed us—or maybe we fixed each other.”

One thing you can say about this movie—it keeps moving! In fact, raw courage comes pounding down the track at you.

Go see this one. It’s not just another Cinderella story. Seabiscuit is the real thing. Seabiscuit is now playing at Showplace 16 and is rated PG-13.

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