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'Seabiscuit' swerves off track

Racehorse movie has heart, but falls short of winners' circle

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This is quite a year for Seabiscuit, the most famous racehorse of the Depression and World War II years. Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller about him remains in bookstores everywhere. A widely watched TV movie recently chronicled his career. And now the trifecta is complete with a lavish Hollywood treatment of the tale.

I wish I could report it triumphs by a length over its none-too-distinguished summer competition, but I found much of it as emotionally rigged as a crooked horse race. While fans of feel-good movies may make it a rousing hit, it won't satisfy anyone who values the surprise and suspense of real sporting events in the world we actually live in.

The story gets off to a slow start as we meet the main characters. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) is a gifted car salesman, one of the first to peddle automobiles in the Western states. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is an eccentric loner who lives in a makeshift camp with a horse whose life he once saved. Johnny "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is the young son of a book-loving businessman who loses everything in the 1929 crash and leaves his boy to make a living from his riding skills.

What unites this trio is a creature more unlikely than the three of them put together: Seabiscuit, a runty little racer with an ungainly gallop and a distinct flair for losing. He's so unpromising that his original owners train him to fail so their stronger nags will gain confidence by leaving him in the dust.

But he has spirit, as Howard and his new employees somehow sense, and under their tutelage he becomes a steady winner. He also becomes a popular symbol of the "little guy" in a troubled historical era, inspiring down-and-out Americans with his ability to beat horses far larger, handsomer, and seemingly stronger than he.

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