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film: Odds-On Favorite

Put your money on “Seabiscuit,” a horse’s tale with plenty of heart.

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While the filmmakers needed to rein in their enthusiasm for underscoring that particular motif, it doesn’t lessen the impact of the central story or characters. And when coupled with the heartfelt performances from Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper (as well as the 10 different horses “playing” the thoroughbred), “Seabiscuit” looks to have the legs of a box-office champ. Considering that Hollywood seems to be mired in a summer of outrageous visual effects and bland sequels, even the sentimental flag-waving is a welcome relief.

Most of the film’s first hour is spent following the three down-but-not-out men, each of whom has suffered a life-shattering loss: Maguire plays Johnny “Red” Pollard, a kid who learned to ride well in better times. But when his Irish immigrant family loses everything, they are only too willing to abandon him to a man who exploits him. Despite being too tall and too heavy, “Red” is forced into the vagabond, lonely life of a jockey.

Cooper is Tom Smith, a cowboy whose way of life is being choked by the spread of civilization. Finding work in Wild West shows, his passion soon has him hanging out at racetracks where his uncanny knack at calming horses earns him some notoriety. Rounding out the trio is Bridges’ Charles Howard, a wealthy car dealer who lost a great deal of money when the stock market crashed. But that financial blow is nothing compared to the pain brought on by his son’s death in a car accident. On the road to emotional recovery, Howard marries a second time and decides to buy his wife a horse.

When the destinies of the three men and horse finally converge, “Seabiscuit” becomes a conventional horse-race movie. Sensing a need perhaps for some comic relief, writer-director Gary Ross veers from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling novel, creating the character of Tick Tock McGlaughlin (William H. Macy). A track reporter with a studio filled with sound effects, alcohol and a patter worthy of Walter Winchell himself, Macy delivers laughs with ease. But it’s the synergy of Maguire, Cooper and Bridges’ characters that keeps the audience involved.

This true story is brimming with melodrama — Pollard, we find out, is blind in one eye, and both he and Seabiscuit suffer multiple serious injuries that require not one but two comebacks to cheer. Then there’s the grudge race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral, the champion of snotty East Coast money, where an injured Pollard is replaced by another rider (Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens in a marvelous film debut).

Faced with the daunting task of cramming as much story and melodrama and history as possible into his 140-minute movie, Ross is forced to skimp on each plot line. So we are left to wonder: What happened to Red’s family and why he has no romantic life except for brief encounter with a prostitute? Where does Howard’s money come from once he goes bust? And why don’t we learn more about Smith than his knack as a soft-spoken horse whisperer?

At the wire, those are just quibbles when compared to the good, old-fashioned thrills and heart-felt chills “Seabiscuit” delivers. It’s a whip-smart winner. ****1/2 S

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