One-track mind

Times Staff Writer

Gary Ross sits inside a horse veterinarian's truck, fishtailing around the corners of Hollywood Park's main track. A dull roar rises from the bettors in the distant grandstands as the field for the seventh race enters the stretch. Ross has a big bet on Bay Town Boy, but from inside the vet's truck, which trails the horses in case one breaks down, it's impossible to tell who will win.

The filmmaker is here for pleasure, not business, but somehow it all feels a bit like directing a movie: The wager is large, the outcome either exhilarating or heartbreaking, but certainly beyond control. As the truck skids in the dirt through the last turn, it's also scary. "But," the director says, "this is the best place to watch a race."

"Seabiscuit," Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller, tells the story not only of an astonishing race horse but also chronicles racing's hidden world, where trainers magically coax blazing speed from previously lumbering colts, jockeys starve themselves thin and broken people and animals are made whole in a furious dash between starting gate and finish line. The racetrack, in her book and in real life, is a populist phenomenon, where the joy and pain of the $2 bettor is as intense as the millionaire Hollywood part-owner of a Kentucky Derby contender.

Spending a night at the races with Ross, who adapted Hillenbrand's book and directed "Seabiscuit," offers its own distinctive vantage points on the track and the man. But first, the betting windows beckon.

Sitting in a clubhouse box with a beer and peanuts, Ross scans the field for the second race. "None of these horses are any good," Ross says, quickly inspecting the Daily Racing Form. Almost all the top jockeys, including "Seabiscuit" co-star Gary Stevens, are taking the night off. Journeymen riders like David Nuesch and Luis Jauregui, both of whom were stunt doubles in the film, have several mounts apiece.

Ross bets a series of complicated trifectas, which require picking the exact order of finish for the first three horses. "Stop the race!" he yells, when his three horses are in the right lineup down the backstretch. The final results are much different, however, and Ross doesn't cash any of his exotic bets. But a covering wager on The Lawyer, who finishes second, leaves him even.

"When you see horses with your heart, that's what makes racing fun," Ross says between races. "But that's not how you should gamble. The amount that I have bet on horses has gone down dramatically since I started making the movie."

Personal passion

Some directors make movies about subjects they don't fully understand. Others inherit films abandoned at the last minute by different filmmakers. With "Seabiscuit," which opens Friday, Ross was able to make a film that had been near the center of his life for years. Hillenbrand's book was not history for Ross. It was his passion since childhood.

As a "rite of passage," Ross was taken to Santa Anita by his parents on his 13th birthday. "In high school I had a friend who was a mathematical genius and a compulsive gambler. So we went a lot." Ross and his wife, producer Allison Thomas, became track regulars in the late 1980s watching Mister Frisky, a $15,000 Puerto Rican horse who eventually won 16 straight races.

Ross considers Secretariat's crushing win of the 1973 Belmont, in which the horse broke the track record by a whopping two and three-fifths seconds and won the Triple Crown by 31 lengths, the greatest sports performance ever.

As much as he loves racing, though, Ross was not until recently an owner. But rather than test the waters with some obscure filly picked out of a claiming race, Ross' first plunge was a whopper. He owns a partial share in Atswhatimtalknbout, who raced in this year's Kentucky Derby, where the colt finished fourth.

"I'll never do that again," Ross, 46, says of his investment. "It's such a unique, electrifying experience, and to go all the way to the Kentucky Derby. I could never duplicate that again."

Behind the scenes

Both Hillenbrand's book and Ross' movie celebrate the underdog, the ennobling power of hard work and optimism. On this night at the track, Ross is drawn not to the ritzy turf club, but to people like Nuesch and Jauregui. On a great night, they each might have one winner, and take home $500. And with one stumble, careers can end.

"When I made the movie, I learned a lot about how unbelievably dangerous their jobs are," says Ross, who wrote "Big" and "Dave" and wrote and directed "Pleasantville." "It's the most dangerous sport in the world," Ross says. Joe Steiner, who worked as a stunt rider in the film, was injured racing at Santa Anita after filming completed, breaking the orbital bone of his right eye, his nose, a front tooth, and his right foot.

Staying healthy isn't the only challenge. "If you don't win, you don't get paid, and you don't eat," Ross says. "And yet there is this amazing camaraderie. It's like golf. Except you can't get killed playing golf."

The fourth race includes Sir Tificate, a 5-year-old gelding who has yet to win in 18 previous starts. "That's just like Seabiscuit," Ross says. Indeed, despite many racing triumphs, Seabiscuit did not reach the winner's circle until his 18th start. "He was a loser. That's what makes him a great hero."

Ross nevertheless ignores the sentimental similarity between the horses, betting instead on two huge longshots. Brendon's Goal doesn't beat anyone, but Soft Lika Rock places in second, returning $200 on Ross' $60 bet.

Jauregui's mount, Stuck in Canada, wins the race. Nuesch sits in front of his cubicle, eating a lime Popsicle. His mount in the fourth race, Bomb Squad, beat only one horse, and Nuesch is covered in dirt kicked in his face by the horses ahead of him. Nuesch doesn't really eat the Popsicle, though. He licks at it a few times, fearful any more calories will add to his tiny frame. "That's it," he says, tossing away the snack.

Jauregui points out what in a health club would be considered nice extras but in a jockey's room are nearly torture chambers: the sauna and steam room, where riders desperately try to sweat off excess weight. "How fast can you burn off pounds?" Jauregui says to one jockey. "I'm pretty fast," the jockey says, saying he can shed three pounds in 30 minutes. Ross says the already slender Tobey Maguire, who plays jockey Red Pollard in the film, lost 22 pounds for the role.

Ross is so busy talking about weight and chatting up jockeys that the parimutuel windows are about to close for the fifth race. As he hurries to the windows, one bettor looks up from his Racing Form and, apropos of nothing, says to Ross, "Academy Award!" Says Ross: "Somehow, I don't think he's an Oscar voter."

The race starts before Ross makes it to the windows. "I'm mad I didn't get that bet down," says Ross, who wanted to bet on La Bella Reina. He covers his face as the filly takes control of the race on the backstretch and never fades. La Bella Reina wins wire-to-wire.

Ross, affable and confidently at home on this turf, doesn't get to brood for long. With all the "Seabiscuit" build-up and because he hired so many local track workers in bit parts, Ross might as well be Hollywood Park's mayor this evening. Jay Cohen, the track's hornblower, who has a small "Seabiscuit" part as a bugle player, stops by Ross' table and serenades him with a couple of Gershwin tunes. Starter Gary Brinson, who played the starter in the film, invites Ross, who cast himself as a track announcer, to stand next to the starting gate as the horses load in and break. Several other people stop by Ross' box to ask for an autograph.

But having friends at the track doesn't necessarily give you an edge at the windows. After the disappointing fifth race, Ross asks one jockey about the horse he's riding in the sixth. The jockey shakes his head, and recommends another horse, Excess Star. Ross makes the horse the center of various bets, but she finishes a distant sixth.

"That was exciting down the lane," Ross says. "But it shows you that you shouldn't listen to jockeys."

Going home a winner

Back inside veterinarian Ray Baran's truck as it slides around the track in the seventh race, Ross is still in high spirits -- giddy, almost. "The best part of coming here is doing stuff like this," he says. "After a while, the gambling part is the least interesting."

Like so many before it, the race was difficult to handicap. Bay Town Boy has not raced in more than a year, and the gelding is facing much better horses than he did before his long layoff. But in his only two previous races, Bay Town Boy never lost, he has one very fast morning workout, and the best odds of the race's three favorites.

"If you know you have the horse, the long layoff is what gives you the price," Ross says of the horse's 3-1 odds.

As soon as the vet's truck crosses the finish line, Ross checks the tote board. Bay Town Boy has won by four lengths, and the filmmaker's $300 wager is worth $840.

"That's a nice ticket," Ross says, beaming. "That could start me gambling again."

The eighth race is a bust, but Ross has done quite well for the night. On the way to his car, he walks past a long list of past winners of the Gold Cup, Hollywood Park's most prestigious contest.

"Seabiscuit should be up there," Ross says, scanning the tally of engraved names. And indeed he is -- first among scores of some of the country's greatest horses.

Seabiscuit's legacy has lasted more than 60 years. These days, a Hollywood movie is considered a success if it lasts six weeks. Ross drives off into the night. For now, he's ahead of the game.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction Director story -- An article in some editions of today's Calendar section on "Seabiscuit" director Gary Ross refers incompletely to rules governing whether jockeys can bet on their own horses to win. The California Horse Racing Board says a jockey can make such wagers, but that bets need to be placed by the horse's owner or trainer.
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