In the summer of 1936, the lives of three men converged on a course with fame, following the eggbeater gait of a horse named Seabiscuit. A descendant of Man O’War who showed none of his predecessor’s beauty or ability, Seabiscuit was so ignored as a racehorse, he was sometimes mistaken for the lead pony at the racetrack.
But in 1936, the unlikely thoroughbred champion was saved from obscurity by three just as unlikely men: his trainer, Tom Smith, the taciturn, lone plainsman who was more at home breaking mustangs than in a thoroughbred stable; his jockey, Red Pollard, a quick-witted, failing jockey who had been abandoned as a young boy at a Montana racetrack; and his owner, Charles Howard, an entrepreneur who had turned a small bicycle repair business into the largest Buick dealership in California.
They saw something in Seabiscuit. They recognized his spirit, his ability, and, as Tom Smith said, his “heart as big as all outdoors,” things numerous trainers and stable hands had missed during his first three years of racing. Under Smith’s training, Pollard and Seabiscuit began a Cinderella run, laying down blistering times, winning race after race, and beating numerous track records.
In the latter half of the Depression, when America wanted to believe the underdog could triumph, Seabiscuit’s fame grew until he was more popular than any political or social figure of the time. Nearly 40 million listeners tuned in to hear radio broadcasts of his races. His appearances drew two of the three largest crowds ever to see a horse race in the United States, and 78,000 people witnessed his last race at the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940. Seabiscuit’s race against the 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral is still regarded by many as the greatest horse race in history. The two horses met at a match race November 1, 1938, at Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore. The race was so popular that Pimlico’s 16,000-seat capacity was compromised as 30,000 people swarmed the grandstand and clubhouse house while another 10,000 watched from the infield. One in every three Americans listened to this race on the radio.
It was that horse, that race, that day, that brought Hollywood to the Bluegrass State for three weeks last November.
Universal Studios crew and writer/director Gary Ross descended on the Bluegrass to shoot one of the principal scenes in the movie, Seabiscuit, slated for national release this month and based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling nonfiction book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The match race was filmed at Lexington’s own Keeneland, while other Kentucky scenes included footage shot in Paris, Eastern State Hospital, Calumet, Stony Oak, Normandy, and Stiff Farms.
Though none of the actual story of Seabiscuit takes place in Kentucky, Ross was attracted to Keeneland’s period racetrack. Even with Keeneland’s classic lines, some modifications were needed. Studio crews switched out the track names on the infield tote board, added a finish line pole with a judge’s stand, and constructed a temporary paddock on the clubhouse lawn.
“Shooting in Kentucky was a magnificent experience. We shot in several locations in Kentucky bluegrass horse country and it was more beautiful than we could ever imagine,” Allison Thomas says, executive producer and the wife of Gary Ross.
Kentucky not only offered Universal Studios a pristine backdrop to the Seabiscuit story, but also much-needed props for set authenticity. Universal Studios set director Leslie Pope and her crew spent several hours in Paris, Kentucky, combing antique stores to outfit the movie sets in Los Angeles with period touches. At Loch Lea Antiques, they purchased many small items, including 25 period winner’s circle pictures from Tijuana, New Orleans, and California where Seabiscuit raced. “They knew what they wanted, and they were very professional,” Lyn Layton says, owner of Loch Lea.
According to the Kentucky Film Commission, more than 50 films have been shot totally or partially in the Commonwealth since 1955; at least 10 of them have had the thoroughbred industry at center stage and have used local actors as extras, such as the 1976 Thoroughbreds and 1977 Black Beauty. Open casting calls for Seabiscuit were made in Lexington and Cincinnati for extras, or as they’re called in LA, “background actors.”
Wendy Thum, extras casting associate, stated approximately 7,000 men, women, and children auditioned for a position as a paid extra, and 4,200 unpaid extras came out to Keeneland on November 17 to watch the re-enactment of the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.
Michael and Elizabeth Rudzik, owners of Trinity Farms in Fayette County, were two of the many paid extras who braved the elements during the week of November 11. They had fallen in love with the story of Seabiscuit after listening to Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller on tape, and thought that being in the movie would be the chance of a lifetime.
The week before casting, Elizabeth rented several 1930s movies for tips on the matte-finish makeup and severe dark lipstick of that era’s actresses. She also went to a vintage clothing store in Midway for an outfit and plundered her mother’s closet for her great-grandmother’s fox stole. Within two weeks of the casting call, she received notification that she had been chosen as a paid extra.
Kentucky Living’s advertising salesperson Curt Smith and his wife read about the casting call in The Courier-Journal. An avid racing fan all his life, Smith read the book and decided to audition at the open call in Lexington. Within three weeks, Smith was notified that he had been chosen as well.
Extras reported every morning at 4:30 a.m. to the Wilkerson Building, a vacant Lexington warehouse commandeered by Universal Studios for wardrobe. Costume designer Judianna Makovsky combed costume houses and vintage stores all over the United States and Europe to assemble a wardrobe for the cast and hundreds of extras. Universal completed more than 850 wardrobe fittings during the Kentucky shoot.
Before the first day of filming, Smith was measured for an outfit, his hair was cut to the style of the time, and he was told to grow a moustache. Rudzik went through a similar routine. Each morning, she stood in line to receive a numbered bag with her shoes and hat, and a numbered hanger with her clothes and coat. Once dressed, she waited for one of the 11 hair and make-up stylists, set up in one of Keeneland’s betting areas, to finish the look. Though most extras wore the same outfit every day, some, such as Rudzik, had two sets of clothes, one for the infield that was less affluent, and one for the grandstand.
Throughout the experience, both Smith and Rudzik gained a great appreciation for the film industry.
“I was close enough to see the playbacks, and it gave me a great appreciation for what a film crew does,” Rudizik says, who even kept a record of the daily events in a red leather journal. “I knew it would be the only movie I’d ever be in, so I wanted to keep track of everything.”
Many of the scenes required multiple takes. The first day in the stands, Smith and his group were about 20 rows behind Jeff Bridges, who plays Seabiscuit’s owner Charles Howard. The scene between Bridges and Marcela Howard, played by Elizabeth Banks, occurs as Seabiscuit wins the match race against favorite War Admiral.
“If they got Bridges accurately, something was wrong in the background. If something went wrong with Bridges, the background might be perfect,” Smith says. “Watching Bridges and his professionalism was a lesson in theater.”
To simulate the action of the race, crew members ran in front of the stands with stick horses while the crowd followed the “horses” and screamed as if it were the real thing. Some people were stationary, some people were moving along the rail, some people remained cheering in the stands. In the old days, racetrack patrons ran along the rail urging on a favorite horse. “There were days we just chased horses up and down the track,” says Smith.
In just three days of filming, Smith logged 40 hours of work, but being a movie star isn’t without its price. One morning Smith was pulled over by the state police before entering Versailles because he was nearly asleep at the wheel, and Rudzik wound up in the hospital with bronchitis and pneumonia after standing in cardboard-thin shoes in the freezing infield for several nine-hour days of shooting.
“It is really good for the racing industry,” says Rudzik. “People are optimistic it will be good for the industry, which will be good for Kentucky.”
“Seabiscuit has a shot at being a great movie, and I’m glad to be a part of that. The horse was the hero of the times, but the story is really about the people around the horse,” says Smith.
The Book—Seabiscuit: An American Legend
In one of the most highly praised sports biographies of the last decade, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Ballentine Books, $24.95 hardback, March 2001) spent 23 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and won numerous awards, most notably the 2002 BookSense Nonfiction Book of the Year. More information is also available online at www.seabiscuitonline.com.
While battling chronic fatigue syndrome, Hillenbrand wrote and researched the story of Seabiscuit over a period of four years. During many days, her condition prevented her from even getting out of bed, but the testimony of her hard work and attention to detail is found in the book, a masterfully told story that sweeps the reader along with riveting race scenes and the tenuous human drama of horse people: jockeys, owners, trainers, and stablehands.
Although Hillenbrand considers herself a nonfiction writer in her position as contributing writer/editor for Equus magazine, her technique borrows heavily from the world of fiction. Creating dialogue, crafting scenes, and foreshadowing to build suspense, she makes the reader love these unlikely heroes through the intimate details of their lives.
Hillenbrand painstakingly uncovered history in thousands of old newspapers, official track chart books, racing magazines, Jockey Guild yearbooks, family scrapbooks, photographs, telegrams, and letters. She placed an ad in the Daily Racing Form on Breeder’s Cup day requesting information on the fabled horse that yielded a dozen letters. She interviewed hundreds of sources found through racing contacts, as well as the surviving family members of the three men involved in Seabiscuit’s ride to fame.
Writer and director Gary Ross and his wife, executive producer Allison Thomas, both fans of horse racing, saw potential in the story when it was first published as an article for American Heritage. Hillenbrand was flooded with offers for the movie rights to her book, but chose Ross because “he understood this is not just a horse story, but a human story and the focus should really be on the people.”
Who’s Who in theSeabiscuit Movie
Seabiscuit includes a handful of well-recognized film stars. Tobey Maguire (Spider Man, Cider House Rules, Wonderboys, Pleasantville) stars as Seabiscuit’s regular jockey, Red Pollard. Jeff Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski) plays Charles Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner. Chris Cooper (American Beauty, October Sky, The Patriot, Adaptation) plays Seabiscuit’s trainer, Tom Smith. Elizabeth Banks plays Marcela Howard, Charles Howard’s wife. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens plays George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit during the match race, and Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron plays Charley Kurtsinger, War Admiral’s rider.
Along with footage filmed in Lexington and Paris, the film was also shot at several other locations, including New York’s Saratoga Racecourse and California’s Santa Anita Racecourse.
Seabiscuit is scheduled for national release July 25, 2003. Go online at www.seabiscuitmovie.com for more information.