Can Seabiscuit Still Be a Savior?

Times Staff Writer

The Commonwealth of Kentucky and the cities of Louisville and Lexington officially declared last Saturday as “Seabiscuit Day,” which is interesting because the great racehorse from the pre-World War II era never ran any of his 89 races in Kentucky.

Seabiscuit was, however, bred in Kentucky, and parts of the new “Seabiscuit” movie were filmed there, hence twin advance showings of the picture Saturday night at theaters in those racing and breeding hotbeds.

Kentucky might well be riding the coattails of the film, which stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper -- and 10 plugs masquerading as Seabiscuit -- but it is the beleaguered racing industry that would like to take a big bite out of the Gary Ross vehicle and re-nourish itself. Many racing executives see in “Seabiscuit” -- which opens nationally Friday -- the chance to introduce a new, younger audience to the sport, which they hope will transfer into a swarm of extra bodies coming to the tracks.


“This is the most optimistic I’ve been in 20 years,” said Tom Meeker, chief executive of the multi-track company that operates Churchill Downs, the Louisville track that is the home of the revered Kentucky Derby. “ ‘Seabiscuit’ and Funny Cide are capturing the attention of the public at large.”Like the sore-legged Seabiscuit, Funny Cide became an up-from-the-bottom story this year. The modestly bred, cheaply bought gelding, owned by a syndicate of mostly average guys who could have called themselves the Everyman Stable, won the Derby and the Preakness before failing to sweep the Triple Crown with a third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.

Racing has had only 11 Triple Crown champions, none since Affirmed in 1978, and in recent years, when four horses before Funny Cide won the first two legs of the series, track officials repeatedly said that a Triple Crown sweep would help retrieve some of the sport’s lost luster.

Maybe that would have happened, maybe not. Funny Cide, a castrated colt who won’t be able to breed, would have been racing’s best-case Triple Crown scenario, because he probably will remain on the track for several more years. Any other Triple Crown champion probably would have run a few more races and then been spirited away to a Kentucky breeding farm, where a long career as a stallion would be far more lucrative.

In the last two years, Belmont Park crowds have topped the 100,000 mark for the first time, as first War Emblem and then Funny Cide took dead aim at the Triple Crown. Large crowds turn out for the Derby and the Preakness as well, and at year’s end the Breeders’ Cup, an eight-race day with purses of $1 million and up, consistently accounts for solid attendance figures, but with few other exceptions racing struggles.

The day after Funny Cide was beaten, the crowd at Belmont dropped to fewer than 9,000. At Santa Anita, where the Breeders’ Cup will be held on Oct. 25, this season’s attendance sank to a daily average of 8,842, lowest ever for a track that opened in 1934. Canadian-based Magna Entertainment, whose vast racetrack holdings include Santa Anita, lost $14 million last year on revenue of $549 million.

Racing’s old customers died off, it didn’t follow other sports into widespread exposure through television, and more recently it has been swallowed by other forms of gambling, including casinos and state lotteries.


Racing’s reply has been to take the market to the customer through off-track, telephone and Internet betting, but these attempts are double-edged swords. A bettor who plays the horses closer to home doesn’t buy hot dogs at the track, or add to a track’s revenue through program sales and parking fees. Moreover, off-track betting forces the host track to share commissions on wagers with additional partners.

In a TNS Intersearch-ESPN poll, which asked people last year if they were interested in a sport “at least a little bit,” horse racing finished in 11th place with 35%. That was an increase of about 4% from 1999, but racing still ranked behind figure skating, boxing and extreme sports.

Known for years as “The Great Race Place,” Santa Anita is going to take on the moniker of “The Home of Seabiscuit,” according to Stuart Zanville, director of marketing at the Arcadia track. Such an appendage is not a stretch: The last four years he ran, Seabiscuit raced 11 times at Santa Anita, and his farewell race, the dramatic victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, consumes the entire last chapter of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, the book from which the movie was drawn. Ross re-created that Big ‘Cap in the film.

A life-size bronze of Seabiscuit, commissioned by his owner, Charles S. Howard of San Francisco, before the horse died in 1947, stands in the walking ring at Santa Anita.

“I’m very optimistic about what the film will do for Santa Anita as well as the rest of racing,” Zanville said. “We’re not even running now, and we’ve had a number of calls from people who just want to come out and see the statue and walk around the track. I’ve seen the film, and it’s really a love letter to Santa Anita. I think all the pieces are in place for this movie to give the sport a big boost.”

Many racing leaders echo Zanville’s remarks, but not everyone associated with the game is ready to write the “Seabiscuit Saves Racing” headline. While not from Missouri, Tom Aronson has adopted a show-me approach. Aronson, who has spent more than 25 years in racing, is president of the Racing Resource Group in Boulder, Colo. He remembers when the 1997 film “The Horse Whisperer,” starring Robert Redford came out.

“I was sitting in the audience at a conference of horse people,” Aronson said. “We were listening to a panel of experts who were predicting that that movie would do more for horses than ‘Jurassic Park’ did for dinosaurs. I guess they thought people might be moved to buy horses the same way they bought Happy Meals for the plastic reptiles. I don’t think too many moviegoers connected those particular dots. Maybe a better film would have helped.”

Aronson said that he knows many people who have read the Hillenbrand book, which has sold more than 1 million copies.

“I don’t think many of them thought about heading off to the races after they read the last page,” he said. “But if the movie gives American racing a chance to recapture some ground by tweaking public interest, that would be great. I’d like to see the sport be ready for the opportunity, if it materializes, rather than just assume the film will make people realize the error of their ways because they haven’t patronized their local track more often.”

Del Mar, the picturesque seaside track just north of San Diego, will open Wednesday, a couple of days before “Seabiscuit” does. Del Mar, the most successful of the California tracks with its compact seven-week season, has always had a close link to the movies -- Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien were among the track’s original investors, several films have been shot there and a sprinkling of the Hollywood crowd still goes, though not nearly as much as in the days when Jimmy Durante, Betty Grable and her horse-owner husband, trumpeter Harry James, were regulars. What’s more, Del Mar’s president, Joe Harper, is a grandson of Cecil B. DeMille.

Seabiscuit’s other match race -- not the 1938 showdown with War Admiral, which accounts for a big chunk of the film -- was a Del Mar victory over the Crosby-owned Ligaroti earlier the same year. Del Mar has planned a “Seabiscuit Day” for Aug. 2, and starting a week from today the track will introduce “Del Mar Goes to the Movies,” a six-Sunday post-race film series featuring old racing pictures.

Craig Dado, vice president for marketing at Del Mar, says there are three types of customers: “Trial,” “repeat usage” and “product loyalty.”

“The movie will deliver some ‘trial’ customers,” Dado said. “It’s our job to take advantage of that. Tracks need to focus on making sure the new visitors are taken care of properly so they consider coming back and maybe even become regular visitors.”

The National Thoroughbred Racing Assn., a marketing group, offered a free trip to Los Angeles and Tuesday night’s “Seabiscuit” premiere. The winner, from 220,000 entrants, was a 35-year-old New Jersey account clerk who’s never been to a racetrack.

Tim Smith, commissioner of the NTRA, said that racing’s core audience is 3 million people. Smith hopes that “Seabiscuit” will be seen by 10 million. It might help, of course, if the Universal Pictures effort is critically well-received. As a genre, horse racing movies have been mostly nondescript, many of them unintentionally laughable. An earlier Seabiscuit film, starring Shirley Temple and Barry Fitzgerald in 1949, came from a screenplay that gave accuracy the day off.

Early reviews of the new “Seabiscuit” are mixed.

“ ‘Seabiscuit’ aims to be a crowd pleaser, and for the most part it is,” wrote Kirk Honeycutt in the Hollywood Reporter. “ ... Thanks to smart performances by, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper, and numerous exciting racing sequences, [it] has the legs of a box-office champ.”

Honeycutt, however, faulted the film for not delving further into the complicated lives of Seabiscuit’s owner Charles S. Howard (Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Cooper) and regular jockey Red Pollard (Maguire).

In Variety, Todd McCarthy found it odd that the horse doesn’t appear on screen until 45 minutes into the film.

“ ‘Seabiscuit’ is respectable when it should be thrilling, honorable when it should be rough and ready,” McCarthy said. “ ... [The picture has] a somewhat embalmed quality that drains a gripping yarn of immediacy and excitement.”

There are many connected to racing who feel that the sport’s priority should be promoting jockeys rather than horses. The best horses come and go, frequently quite quickly. Secretariat was retired about five months after he won the 1973 Triple Crown. Jockeys, whose careers can span 20 years or more, can talk, some of them quite well, and one of them, Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, has a featured role as jockey George Woolf in “Seabiscuit.” Jerry Bailey, arguably the premier jockey in the U.S. now, said for 15 years he has beseeched racing to better promote the riders.

Stevens, who hopes his work in “Seabiscuit” will lead to more acting roles, was named one of “the 50 most beautiful people” by People magazine and he was the subject of a full-page photo in the August issue of Vanity Fair.

“The NTRA will help to market the [Seabiscuit] film, and the industry is hoping for a big boost from it,” Don Clippinger wrote in a recent issue of the Thoroughbred Times. “The film undoubtedly will help, but it is a period piece, about events that happened more than a half-century ago. For today and tomorrow, the sport needs to market itself through its jockeys, both on a national and regional level.

“ ‘Seabiscuit’ offers an opportunity for the sport to turn over a new leaf and use athletes as its marketing stars.”

Staff writer James Peltz contributed to this report.