Sunday, July 27, 2003

Stevens balances horses, Hollywood

Rider has bright future on big screen

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens is balancing horses and Hollywood since making his acting debut in the new movie Seabiscuit.

Playing jockey George Woolf wasn't much of a stretch for Stevens, who has ridden three Kentucky Derby winners. But it opened the door for other acting offers.

Stevens has formed a team comprised of Seabiscuit writer and director Gary Ross, co-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, his manager and a publicist to sift through scripts.

"I'm letting the professionals manage my career. This is all new to me," he said at Tuesday's world premiere in Westwood. "Just like horse racing, you surround yourself with successful people and rely on their professionalism to get you to the next level."

Stevens' looks landed him on People magazine's list of the 50 most beautiful. He appears shirtless and sitting backward on a horse in the August issue of Vanity Fair magazine.

The photos caused him grief at the race track. "There were some catcalls, a little difficult from the peers," he said. "If I can help my sport and make it move forward and get an opportunity to move on to another career, I'm going to do it."

Woolf, nicknamed "The Iceman" for his cool demeanor, was a top rider who dressed well and enjoyed partying with friends at The Derby, a restaurant he owned near Santa Anita. He was killed during a race in 1946.

"George Woolf is very similar to me," Stevens said. "Nothing bothered him, he thrived on the big races and it's just a character that I feel very, very comfortable playing."

Ross picked Stevens for the part while walking through the jockeys' room one day.

"Sometimes you just get hit with an instinct," Ross said. "He looks like a movie star and there was a cocky bravado, a kind of confidence."

Ross sent Stevens for a few days of lessons with acting coach Larry Moss. But he was dismissed after a day. "It was one of the biggest surprises for me, how good an actor he turned out to be," Ross said.

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron said it's possible racing could lose Stevens to Hollywood.

"He's got what it takes. He's got the talent," said McCarron, who served as the movie's technical consultant and race designer. "He realizes this is a whole lot safer than riding horses."

Stevens, 40, skipped Wednesday's opening day at Del Mar near San Diego since he knew he'd be up late. On Monday, he has a book signing appearance to promote his autobiography The Perfect Ride, which came out last year. Stevens plans to ride on and off during Del Mar's 43-day meeting, focusing mostly on big stakes.

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