A different Seabiscuit for each scene

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Life was never this good when the horse known as I Two Step Too earned his oats running in races as far from the bright lights and big city as a thoroughbred racehorse gets. After all those years in the company of other four-legged broken dreams, reminded each time he would race in places like Boise, Stampede Park and the Montana State Fair that he was, as they say, "not much stock," his luck had taken a sudden turn for the better.

Only last summer, he was slugging it out regularly, running hard, not fast, for small money at Les Bois Park in Idaho, and up for sale each time he ran. Then suddenly, I Two Step Too was a movie star on location, traveling first-class to Kentucky and Hollywood. The dusty backwater tracks were left behind. The food was better. People provided everything a horse could want.

In the words of Rusty Hendrickson, the man responsible for bringing I Two Step Too to the silver screen, "He was our kick-ass Seabiscuit."

I Two Step Two is one of eight horses that portray the legendary Seabiscuit in the new film being released this week.

Seabiscuit was the product of aristocratic bloodlines, born at a time when racing enjoyed enormous popularity and was ruled from the sprawling estates that decorated Long Island's North Shore. His early days were couched in the splendor of the Wheatley Stable, which was owned by Gladys Phipps, who bred and campaigned dozens of champions and built a racing empire that endures to this day.

Of course, not even the most blue-blooded of equine couplings always has the intended result, as was the case with Seabiscuit, a plain-looking specimen blessed with none of the physical attributes of those in his ancestral lineage. His legs were short, the knees misshapen; his tail little more than a wisp.

At rest, he was a study in torpor. Once roused, he walked with an odd motion easily mistaken for lameness and ran with a flailing, eggbeater action.

Nor had he inherited the misanthropic temperament for which his highly strung paternal family was famous. In the early stages of his career, Seabis-cuit was known best for the long stretches that he spent asleep.

Seabiscuit's original trainer, the legendary "Sunny Jim" Fitzsim-mons, judged him unworthy of the high level of competition intended by his breeders and was happy to see him sold for $8,000 to Charles Howard, a California car magnate. Thusly began the unlikely metamorphosis of a homely, sleepy underachiever into a champion for the ages.

All the pretty horses

Seabiscuit, the movie adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's book, has Tobey Maguire in the role of Johnny "Red" Pollard, Seabiscuit's hard-luck jockey; Jeff Bridges as Howard; Elizabeth Banks as his wife, Marcella Howard; and introduces jockey Gary Stevens as George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit in his famous 1938 match race with Triple Crown winner War Admiral at Baltimore's Pimlico racetrack.

Casting Seabiscuit was a bit more complicated.

From the outset, director Gary Ross was determined that the racing sequences in the film would be authentic, neither a small nor uncomplicated undertaking. The film required more than the garden-variety horse. It required several horses to play one role -- specialists to portray Seabiscuit's various behaviors.

The director also required horses to portray War Admiral. Unlike the misshapen Seabiscuit, War Admiral, who had won the Triple Crown, was a study in thoroughbred confirmation. The project also required many four-legged extras to portray the many long-forgotten horses defeated by Seabiscuit.

The assignment of casting the nonhuman roles went to Hendrick-son, a Montana rancher and veteran movie wrangler whose lengthy credits include The Patriot, Wyatt Earp, All the Pretty Horses and Dances With Wolves.

Last spring, Hendrickson set out on an extended mission to find horses that fit the description of Seabiscuit and were closely matched to one another. He would visit both coasts and dozens of racetracks in between, places where the horses fit the budget of a man who would buy 45 animals that would appear in the film.

"Some things you could duplicate," Hendrickson said, "some you couldn't. You couldn't expect to go out there and find horses who had the same crooked legs. That would have been all but impossible."

Seabiscuit evolved.

Each had a specialty

"We started with one of my horses. That horse didn't become one of the Seabiscuits. He was the prototype. Seabiscuit was a red bay. We decided he stood about 15 hands [about 5 feet at the shoulder]. We had to find sound horses with no frailties. With a strenuous production schedule, we wanted them to be as problem-free as possible."

The horses, Hendrickson said, were purchased for $3,000 to $5,000 each. Eight red bays played Seabiscuit. Four horses portrayed War Admiral. Some required makeup to disguise facial differences. The taller War Admirals were dyed black, a color rare in thoroughbreds.

One horse was chosen for his lethargy, another for his tendency to rear on his hind legs, one of real Seabiscuit's least endearing behaviors. Finding those horses, Hen-drickson said, was the easy part. There was also a fiberglass, mechanical Seabiscuit used in racing scenes that required Maguire to convey the impression that he was actually riding.

Hendrickson found Fighting Furrari in Ohio, where he had been racing with modest success. A breathing problem that retarded his original career, Hendrickson said, posed no problem on the Seabiscuit set. Fighting Furrari, a natural, became the mainstay Seabiscuit.

"He was comfortable with whatever happened," Hendrickson said. "He was calm with cameras around, and Tobey Maguire was comfortable riding him." The test came with the racing sequences filmed at Keeneland racetrack in Lexington, Ky., and Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles.

"There were times when the director looked at me and said, 'What happened?' " said retired jockey Chris McCarron, who rode in some sequences and served as a consultant. "I said, 'Haven't you ever bet on the horse that didn't win?' ... Getting horses to the right spot at the right time is no easy task.

"We had to be very careful in choosing the right Seabiscuit for the task at hand: Seabiscuit coming from way back. Seabiscuit in the middle of the pack. The biggest challenge was trying to figure out what horses would be the most cooperative and the most responsive. The other challenge was to make the scenes look realistic."

The racing scenes were choreographed and shot in quarter-mile takes. And with horses limited to three takes a day, there was limited margin for error or the incidental vagaries of working with animals that are instinctively competitive.

Hendrickson and McCarron, who portrayed Charlie Kurtsinger, War Admiral's jockey, chose Cobra Flight to play Seabiscuit's opponent in the match race that is central to the story. War Admiral was famously defeated in that race, but Cobra Flight was not easily denied.

"I won two takes," McCarron said.

For his dependability, I Two Step Too became the troupe's stalwart.

"He was the fastest," Hendrick-son said. "Whenever you needed the quick burst of speed from Seabiscuit, he delivered."

The 45 horses were dispersed at the close of production. Some were sold. McCarron bought a horse named Sher Shah Soree as a show horse prospect for his daughter. Homes were found for others. Only one, Hendrickson said, returned to racing.

"Some people who saw him on the set thought he'd be a world beater at Los Alamitos [a small track south of Los Angeles]," Hendrickson said. "He's run a few times, but I'm afraid he hasn't done very well."

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