How real is the reel Seabiscuit?
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Few sports movies in the last few years have been as anticipated as "Seabiscuit." Based on Laura Hillenbrand's mega-bestseller, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," the movie, a biopic that uses, on occasion, a documentary style, seems about as authentic as you can get and still be a blockbuster flick. But is it true to the real life of Seabiscuit and the people who surrounded the great horse? You decide.

In Reel Life: Young Red Pollard (Michael Angarano) is raised in a middle-class family that, the film implies, goes broke because of the Depression.
In Real Life: Pollard's family was well off. His father was a factory owner and real estate developer, but the family went bust in 1915, when a flood destroyed the factory.

In Reel Life: Red's parents suddenly leave him, telling him its time for him to make his own way.
In Real Life: Pollard was accompanied by a guardian -- a family friend -- as he toured low-rent race tracks trying to make it as a jockey. The guardian did leave him suddenly when he was 15 years old.

In Reel Life: Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) loses his only child, a teenage boy, in a car accident.
In Real Life: Howard did have a son, Charles, who died in an accident. But Charles was one of four children.

In Reel Life: During some of his early races on the minor-league circuits, Red literally fights and wrestles with other jockeys during races.
In Real Life: That's the way it used to be done, at least sometimes. "It doesn't happen much now because there are cameras everywhere," former Jockey Diane Zippi told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But it did happen, more on the bush tracks. You had to fight to ride." Said Joe Rocco, who plays one of the jockeys in the film, "If you fight in a race today, you get ruled off for life."

In Reel Life: It's often mentioned that Red is big -- both tall and heavy -- for a jockey.
In Real Life: Pollard, 5'7" and 115 pounds, was big. Maguire is about an inch taller. For the role, Maguire lost 25 pounds and three clothes sizes while keeping to a vegetarian diet. No doubt the $12 million he received for the role helped him buy a new wardrobe.

In Reel Life: Red is a nice guy, a determined rider, but otherwise fairly unremarkable.
In Real Life: "I didn't recognize my uncle," John Pollard, Red's nephew, told the L.A. Times after seeing the film. "My uncle was quick-witted. That wasn't him up there on the screen."

Charles Howard and Seabiscuit
Real Life ...
In Reel Life: Before he's bought by Howard, Seabiscuit races (and loses) frequently.
In Real Life: In 89 races -- many more than most racehorses run these days -- the Biscuit won only 33 times. One of those times was at Suffolk Downs on June 29, 1936, when Tom Smith, before he convinced Howard to buy the horse, happened to be watching.

In Reel Life: Seabiscuit runs in a "$20,000 Allowance for 3-year-olds," the "San Ofrere Handicap," the "San Miguel Handicap," and the "San Rafael Handicap."
In Real Life: Seabiscuit didn't run in any of those races. You can check out Seabiscuit's entire race history here.

Jeff Bridges and a horse
... Reel Life
In Reel Life: Pollard takes a job "hot walking" a horse that's tied to a mechanical hot walker.
In Real Life: When a horse is hot walked, it's done either by a mechanical hot walker or by a person, but not by both.

In Reel Life: Seabiscuit's trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is a quiet man with a special affinity for horses.
In Real Life: That's an accurate depiction of Smith, as people remember him, although he was much more ornery around human beings than he appears in the film. Cooper himself knows horses, having ridden quarterhorses for years. But quarterhorses are much more calm and predictable than thoroughbreds, and Cooper suffered as a result, fracturing a vertebra while chasing mustangs in his only riding scene.

In Reel Life: Red fares poorly as a jockey-- until he rides the Biscuit.
In Real Life: Pollard rode successfully in Tijuana, but then fell into a prolonged slump and many thought he was washed up. Maguire himself trained on an equicizer (a stationary faux horse), and actually riding in a few segments that made it into the film. But he was replaced by a stunt double, jockey Ricky Frazier, for race scenes.

In Reel Life: Pollard is well-read, reciting poetry and quoting Shakespeare, and is accommodating to the press.
In Real Life: Pollard did like poetry and, said Farrell Jones, a trainer who worked for Smith and knew Pollard, "Red could quote Shakespeare and sound just like an actor. Except he bellowed like a bull." But Pollard was less than eloquent when dealing with the press, which he didn't like. "He used to quote a poem (by Austin Dobson): 'Fame is a food that dead men eat. I have no stomach for such meat'," said his daughter, Norah Pollard Christianson.

In Reel Life: Howard, Smith, Pollard, and Seabiscuit travel west to Howard's ranch, Ridgewood. It's a gorgeous, enormous spread.
In Real Life: It was 16,000 acres of lush beauty in Walker Valley, but now it's been subdivided into many smaller plots.

Tobey Maguire
Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) discuss strategy.
In Reel Life: After losing the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap by a nose, Pollard tells Howard and Smith that he lost because he didn't see Rosemont, the winner, coming up on him. He confesses that he's blind in his right eye.
In Real Life: Pollard never told Smith and Howard that he was half-blind. His excuse for losing that race was that he had been stuck on the rail, which was slow, and was unable to get to the outside. "Had he let on that he was blind in one eye, his career would have been over," writes Hillenbrand. "Howard accepted Pollard's explanation without criticism. Neither he nor Smith blamed him."

In Reel Life: Seabiscuit is one horse.
In Real Life: In producing the movie, 10 Seabiscuits and four War Admirals were used. This was because the race sequences necessitated multiple takes a day (too much for an individual horse to handle), and also because different horses did different things particularly well.

"One horse the wranglers dubbed Biscuit was good at tricks, like ripping the silks off a jockey with his teeth," wrote Robert W. Welkos in the L.A. Times. "Another, who was given the barn name Gravy, received the casting call when the script called for Seabiscuit to rear up and jab the air in anger. Still another, nicknamed Muffin, had perhaps the best job of all: He played Seabiscuit relaxing in the stall."

Fighting Furrari, a five-year-old gelding who's won only one of his 16 races, got the winner's circle scenes, and the recuperation time at Ridgewood Ranch.

In all, the film employed about 50 horses.

In Reel Life: The jockeys in the racing scenes clearly know what they're doing.
In Real Life: They should, since a dozen real jockeys are in the cast, and they're supervised by Chris McCarron, who before retiring not long ago won 7,141 races in 28 years and became, in 1996, the first jockey to pass the $200 million mark in career earnings. McCarron also rides the faux War Admiral in the match race, and utters one word of dialogue: "George."

In Reel Life: The racing scenes look, well, real.
In Real Life: An enormous amount of money and effort went into staging the races to look as realistic as possible. McCarron devised playbooks for each race, so that the riders would be positioned accurately at different points on the track.

"We followed the Daily Racing Form charts of the actual races," Gary Stevens, who plays jockey George "The Iceman" Woolf, told Rachel Blount of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "If a horse was laying third going into the clubhouse turn with nine horses, and he was six lengths off the lead that's where he is in the film."

Using this information, McCarron and Co. planned the race scenes meticulously, using "My Little Pony" toy horses positioned on a race oval outlined on a floor with electrical tape.

Then there was the shooting. Explained Stevens, "We created the S.S. Seabiscuit, a large 'aircraft carrier' -- actually a big flatbed racing car with mechanical horses on it -- to get jockey close-ups while flying down the track at 45 mph with wind and dirt in our face and other horses around it." The S.S. Seabiscuit was powered by a 454 Chevy engine, and the horses were two equicizers, mounted on tracks, and fitted with fake horse heads.

In Reel Life: Seabiscuit sleeps for long stretches of time, laying down.
In Real Life: That was the Biscuit. But most horses take lots of little naps, and sleep standing up.

Tobey Maguire really isn't Spiderman, either.
In Reel Life: Seabiscuit tosses his first companion animal, a goat, way high out of the barn.
In Real Life: Smith did try pairing the Biscuit with a goat at first, but the goat didn't fly quite that high. Seabiscuit took the goat in its teeth, shook it around, and dumped it over the half-door of his stall.

In Reel Life: Most of Seabiscuit's races take place at Santa Anita Park.
In Real Life: True. Not only was Santa Anita the Biscuit's home track, it was also co-founded by Howard. And the Santa Anita scenes were filmed at the track (as were the Saratoga scenes filmed at Saratoga.) "We were lucky. All we had to do was take out the Jumbotrons in the infield," director Gary Ross told the Sacramento Bee.

In Reel Life: Woolf, Red's friend, is a great rider.
In Real Life: Woolf was one of the best jockeys of his time. Stevens, who plays the great jockey, is also one of the best riders in the world, having ridden three winners in the Kentucky Derby, two in the Preakness, and three in the Belmont Stakes. Before "Seabiscuit," he had never acted, but, according to the filmmakers, he was a natural. And he likes the Hollywood life, striking a topless pose (on a horse, of course) for the August cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

In Reel Life: Red and George talk during their races against each other.
In Real Life: This seems unlikely because of the noise and the very short races, but it happens. "If you're running out of the money anyhow, you might bet a guy a Coke or talk about how slow your horses are," Scott Stevens, Gary's brother, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "[But] It doesn't usually happen in the heat of the battle, like it did in the movie."

In Reel Life: "Tick Tock" McGlaughlin (William H. Macy) is a mustachioed, gimmicky, fast-talking commentator who talks up Seabiscuit big time and also becomes friends with Howard.
In Real Life: Tick Tock is an entirely fictional character. "I made it all up," said Macy. "I didn't do any research." He didn't grow a moustache, either. "They called me to the set and I said to the guy, 'Could I get a moustache?' And he came up with that fabulous moustache."

In Reel Life: The races sound like they're called authentically.
In Real Life: Frank Mirahmadi called most of the races in the film. He's the announcer at Louisiana Downs, and is known for his impressions. In the mid-1990s, Mirahmadi impersonated Marv Albert for one race call at Hollywood Park. In the film, he emulates Joe Hernandez and Harry Henson, who called races in Southern California.

In Reel Life: War Admiral is much bigger than the Biscuit.
In Real Life: War Admiral was almost a foot taller than Seabiscuit.

In Reel Life: War Admiral's owner, Samuel D. Riddle, is depicted as constantly ducking a match race with Seabiscuit.
In Real Life: There were many attempts to get the two horses together, and Seabiscuit scratched in several of their scheduled matchups -- twice because of muddy track conditions, another time because of leg problems. War Admiral scratched in one race, as well.

In Reel Life: Pollard gets hurt just a few days before the match race when he is dragged by a horse at Pimlico.
In Real Life: Pollard suffered his serious injury months earlier, at Santa Anita.

In Reel Life: Woolf takes Pollard's place aboard Seabiscuit, and it appears that his first race on the horse is the match race against War Admiral.
In Real Life: The match race was the ninth time Woolf had ridden the Biscuit. He was an obvious choice to take the reins from Pollard. In his time, he was very famous. He owned the Derby, a steakhouse near Santa Anita that still stands (and serves). After he died in a racing accident at Santa Anita in 1946, 1,500 people attended his funeral, including Gene Autry, who sang "Empty Saddles in the Old Corral."

In Reel Life: The match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit takes place at Pimlico, in Baltimore.
In Real Life: The match race sequences were filmed at Keeneland, in Kentucky, because Pimlico has been modernized (and is also in disrepair), and doesn't closely enough resemble its earlier incarnation. But Keeneland, too, had to be transformed -- filmmakers removed the TV monitors, Jumbotrons and satellite dishes, and added a paddock.

In Reel Life: Pimlico is overwhelmed with fans.
In Real Life: Forty-thousand fans jammed Pimlico, capacity 16,000, to attend the race, with about 30,000 in the stands and 10,000 in the infield. The crowd was so huge that the race announcer couldn't make it up to his usual perch, and called the race from the winner's circle. You can hear the original race call (and evidence of the announcer's occasional inability to see) here.

To create the illusion of such a large crowd, director Gary Ross used 4,000 extras and 7,000 inflatable mannequins supplied by the Inflatable Crowd Company. The next sports movie you'll see them in will probably be "Wimbledon," starring Kirsten Dunst. That film uses 8,500 of the faux fans.

In Reel Life: Howard and his wife, Marcela (Elizabeth Banks) cheer on the Biscuit as the horses race.
In Real Life: The grandstand cheering close-ups were shot separately from the races. But the actors got into it. During one take, Banks cheered so wildly that she accidentally hit Bridges and gave him a black eye. "The next day, I get excited and throw my hands up and smack her right in the nose and give her a bloody nose," Bridges said.

In Reel Life: Seabiscuit wins going away.
In Real Life: One constant problem in filming the race scenes is that thoroughbreds are trained to win, so trying to convince them to lose to another horse isn't easy. In the faux match race, Cobra Flight, standing in for War Admiral, won two takes.

In Reel Life: Seabiscuit suffers a bowed tendon. A vet goes into the stall to check him, and says he'll never race again. He also offers to euthanize the Biscuit.
In Real Life: The nature of the injury wasn't immediately apparent to the vet, who was, of course, accompanied by Smith while examining the Biscuit. Smith thought the problem was with Seabiscuit's ankle; the vet thought it was the horse's knee. According to Hillenbrand, the vet "offered no verdict. He said the injury needed time to declare itself. It could be as bad as a broken bone or a blown suspensory ligament. Or it could be as minor as a kick bruise." Later, after X rays were developed, the vet said only that the Biscuit's career could be over, if the ligament was ruptured. But there would be no way to tell but wait and watch.

In Reel Life: Pollard is single.
In Real Life: Pollard married the nurse who helped him recover from his injury.

In Reel Life: Pollard finally makes his comeback, convincing Howard to let him ride in the Santa Anita Handicap.
In Real Life: After recovering from his injury, Pollard had ridden the Biscuit in three smaller races before the Derby.

In Reel Life: When Pollard gets to the starting gate at the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, he's surprised to see Woolf riding another horse.
In Real Life: Jockeys ride lots of different horses -- that's how they make a living. Of course, Pollard knew that Woolf was in the race long before they got to the gate. But, as depicted in the film, Woolf was riding Heelfly, who finished 10th.

In Reel Life: During that race, Seabiscuit gets off to an awful start, and is 15-to-20 lengths behind the pack midway through the race.
In Real Life: Clearly, the filmmakers decided to toss the playbook for this one. As Bob Roberts of the Cleveland Plain Dealer points out, "According to the Daily Racing Form chart, Seabiscuit was never worse than second, or more than a length behind."

In Reel Life: The movie ends on a triumphant note, with Seabiscuit finally winning the Santa Anita Handicap.
In Real Life: That race, which featured a then-huge purse of $121,650, had eluded Seabiscuit for years. He lost to Rosemont in 1937, lost by a nose (with Woolf aboard) to Stagehand in 1938, and pulled up lame in the 1939 contest. In the 1940 race depicted in the film, Seabiscuit set a Santa Anita record of 2:01 1/5, the second-fasted 1 1/4-mile of all time.

Some say that Buddy Haas, who rode the second-place finisher, Kayak II, tanked the race, holding back his horse (also owned by Howard) to allow Biscuit the victory. According to an L.A. Times story the day after the race, "Many left the track with the impression Kayak II might have won the big race if Buddy Haas ... had more vigorously ridden the black Argentine in the final sixteenth."

In her book, Hillenbrand doesn't address that controversy, and it isn't discussed in the movie, either. Hillenbrand told the L.A. Times that she originally included the rumors that Haas tanked the race, but the stories weren't substantiated well enough to include them in the final draft. "I didn't want to take the focus off of Seabiscuit's accomplishment for the sake of belaboring a minor issue," she said.



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