Sunday, July 20, 2003

[IMAGE] Tobey Maguire portrays jockey Red Pollard, a half-blind former boxer, in the movie Seabiscuit.
(Associated Press photo)
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Seabiscuit races back into the spotlight

With a best-selling book and now a movie shot partly in Lexington, the Depression-era horse maintains a place in America's heart

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

On Friday, Seabiscuit opens in theaters nationwide, the moment of truth for an extraordinary production, based on an extraordinary book, inspired by one of the most extraordinary sports figures in American history. If it measures up to its historical roots and the sky-high expectations of its makers, the movie could be one of this year's biggest hits.

[IMAGE] Seabiscuit beat famed War Admiral in a Nov. 1, 1938, race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
(Associated Press photo)
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The film has special meaning for Tristate audiences; important sections were filmed at Lexington's Keeneland race track and nearby private horse farms, plus several crew members and hundreds of extras were recruited from the region. Even more intriguing to history buffs is Seabiscuit's local connection - before rising to Horse of the Year status in 1938, he raced at River Downs two years earlier.

Here is a look at the burgeoning phenomenon surrounding the race horse who became a national hero during the depths of the Depression.

Book rekindles the horse craze

Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Random House, $25.95) began life as a 1998 article for American Heritage magazine. It sparked such enthusiasm that author Laura Hillenbrand, a graduate of Ohio's Kenyon College, saw a bidding war among movie studios when her full-length book on the subject was only a proposal.

The book hit the best-seller lists as soon as it was published in 2001 and has been riding high ever since, with total sales of about 2.5 million and counting, including paperbacks, audio versions and a new collector's edition featuring rare historical photographs.

Hillenbrand's affection for the bandy-legged red bay, and the jockey, trainer and owner who turned Seabiscuit into an unlikely champion impressed filmmaker Gary Ross so much he enlisted her as a consultant when he was writing the screenplay based on her book.

He also cast her as an extra (she appears in the winner's circle after the match race with War Admiral), an experience that taxed her stamina.

For 16 years, she has battled an extreme case of chronic fatigue syndrome that at times was so bad she could not turn over in bed. Her ailment keeps her confined most of the time to her home in Washington, D.C., and her Web site ( contains a link to the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Deficiency Syndrome Association of America (

Other books about Seabiscuit

Cincinnati writer Kat Shehata and illustrator Jo McElwee are a mother-and-daughter team who have self-published a children's book, Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral: The Greatest Horse Race in History, (Angel Bea Publishing $15.95), also available online at

Other books about the famous horse include:

Seabiscuit: The Saga of a Great Champion, B. K. Beckwith (Westholme, $19.95)

The Seabiscuit Story, John McEvoy (Eclipse Press, $16.95)

Come on Seabiscuit, Ralph Moody, illustrated by Robert Riger (Bison Books, $11.95)

1949 motion picture took liberties

Seabiscuit's life story was turned into a big-screen feature in 1949 in The Story of Seabiscuit, a melodrama starring then-21-year-old Shirley Temple.

Director David Butler and screenwriter John Taintor Foote used only the bare outlines of the horse's real-life experience, including the name of the owner, Charles Howard.

Otherwise, trainer Tom Smith was replaced by the fictional Shawn O'Hara, played by Irish actor Barry Fitzgerald, the uncle of Temple's character, Margaret O'Hara.

In the film, Margaret falls for Seabiscuit's jockey - who is neither Red Pollard nor George Wolff, but the invented Ted Knowles, played by Lon McAllister. Traumatized by the death of her jockey brother, Margaret insists Ted quit racing, until he convinces her that he is the only one who can ride Seabiscuit to victory, and thereby vindicate her uncle's judgment.

Seabiscuit on TV

Next Sunday, A&E Network will unveil its new documentary, The True Story Of Seabiscuit, at 9 p.m. The program is narrated by William H. Macy, who appears in the movie as handicapper and sports commentator "Tick Tock" McGlaughlin.

WCET Channel 48, Dayton and Oxford's WPTD and WPTO, and Kentucky's KCET will begin rerunning the PBS American Experience documentary Seabiscuit, the Long Shot That Captured America's Heart on July 28 at 9 p.m.

PBS hosts an extensive Seabiscuit Web section with a transcript of the TV program, photos of famous race horses, audio of original radio broadcasts from notable races, an interview with author Laura Hillenbrand, a timeline, biographies, historical background and a teacher's guide.

Movie mania at the track

River Downs is celebrating its connection with Seabiscuit's history on consecutive weekends.

Today, there will be drawings during each race for family four-packs of tickets to Tuesday's Cincinnati premiere of the Seabiscuit movie.

Saturday, a commemorative racing program can be purchased for $5. A Seabiscuit bobblehead doll and trading card of Seabiscuit jockey Red Pollard are free to the first 5,000 fans that purchase the program. The program will include historical documents, articles and photos of Seabiscuit.

Gates open at 11:30 a.m.; bobbleheads will be awarded when races begin at 12:55 p.m. Admission and parking are free every day at River Downs.

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