Seabiscuit: Horse Racing Drama Marks 20th Anniversary

Tobey Maguire in Seabiscuit. Courtesy of Universal.

The Oscar-nominated Great Depression-era horse racing drama, Seabiscuit, marks the 20th anniversary since its theatrical release in 2003.

“He just needs to learn how to be a horse again.” – Tom Smith (Chris Cooper)

In 2003, Gary Ross beautifully adapts Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book for the big screen. The end result is an impressive piece of filmmaking. How Ross doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for directing is beyond me. They have the original 1938 match race to utilize in recreating it for the big screen. The match race is certainly a key scene in the movie and it never loses one’s attention. We’re on the edge of our seats watching Seabiscuit and Triple Crown winner War Admiral face off in a match race. This speaks to just how much of a make-or-break sequence it is for the film. Animals are not easy to direct so it’s even more astonishing in watching the racing on screen. But as much as this film is about the match race, it’s also about the humanity surrounding the titular horse.

Seabiscuit’s story is very different from that of Secretariat. We’re talking about an undersized horse that made its way to the top at a time when Americans needed heroes to root for. As owner Charles S. Howard (Jeff Bridges) says in the film:

“The horse is too small, the jockey too big, the trainer too old, and I’m too dumb to know the difference.”

Howard would surround Man o’War’s grandson with trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and jockey John “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire). Pollard was partially blind in his right eye but kept it to himself so as to keep his job as a jockey. Following a racing accident, fellow jockey George Woolf (Gary Stevens) stepped in the saddle for the “race of the century” at Pimlico in Baltimore with Lexington’s Keeneland standing in for the track. What a race it was with a win by four lengths! It becomes even more of an heartwarming story later on when Seabiscuit is injured and recovers while Red is still recovering. They both have a reason to get back on the racetrack again. In one of those moments that could only be made for cinema, Woolf acknowledges Red just before Red and Seabiscuit turn on the heat and win another race.

The cinematography is absolutely stunning seeing as how the film gets up close and personal during the racing scenes. It’s a credit to cinematographer John Schwartzman. His ASC colleagues awarded him with Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases. Unfortunately, the film did not win in all seven categories in which it was nominated for an Oscar. That’s what happens when it goes up against Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings. Regardless, it remains impressive cinematography all these years later.

What they don’t tell us in the movie is that the titular horse happens to be the nephew of his rival. War Admiral (Dam: Brushup) and Hard Track (Dam: Tea Biscuit) were half-brothers through their sire, Man o’War. You’d be hard to find a horse today that didn’t have Man o’War somewhere in their bloodline. Anyway, the story doesn’t end after the match race. Coincidentally, both Seabiscuit and War Admiral would enter the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame together in 1959. Unfortunately, Seabiscuit died years earlier in 1947. War Admiral would pass away in 1959.

According to Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary Bringing the Legend to Life: The Making of Seabiscuit, producer Frank Marshall says that they used a total of ten horses to play Seabiscuit. They also utilize the Equicizer in filming the close-up scenes. It would probably be a bit on the tough side to put a camera rig on a race horse, let alone the jockey on said horse. That being said, you certainly could have fooled me.

Twenty years after its theatrical release, Seabiscuit remains one of the best sports dramas to grace the screen.

NARRATOR: David McCullough
CAST: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens, and William H. Macy

Universal released Seabiscuit in theaters on July 25, 2003. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.