Updated on 09/17/2011 11:06AM

Hollywood ending for cheap claimer

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WASHINGTON - At no moment of his racing career did Fighting Furrari display any special talent. He was modestly bred. He was chronically slow. He ran mostly in cheap races at minor-league tracks and managed to win only once in 16 tries. He was an unlikely candidate to become the most-watched Thoroughbred in America.

But the 5-year-old holds that distinction since the release of the movie "Seabiscuit." Although several horses were used to play the equine hero, Fighting Furrari was the principal Seabiscuit. Now he's making publicity appearances to promote the film. And, according to reports from the people around him, he loves his new career.

Fighting Furrari, a son of the not-so-famous stallion Momsfurrari, reached his acme as a racehorse in May, 2002, when he won a maiden claiming race, by a nose, at Cincinnati's River Downs. Richard Shepard, the Kentuckian who bred and owned him, decided to sell Fighting Furrari thereafter and offered him to trainer Gaylord Hatcher for $1,500. Seeing that Hatcher was unenthusiastic, Shepard made a proposition; they would flip a coin and, depending on the outcome, the price would be $1,000 or $1,500.

Hatcher got the horse for $1,000.

Even for that amount, Fighting Furrari was no bargain. "The first time I ran him," Hatcher recalled, "I told the jock, 'Just sit on him early and let him make a late run.' He dropped about 50 lengths behind."

When Hatcher subsequently told the rider to try to get the horse into contention, the instructions made no difference. Fighting Furrari fell so far behind that he could never get close to the leaders. "He wasn't fast enough to make any money," Hatcher said, "but he was still a good horse to be around. You could bring kids around and put them on him."

Fighting Furrari's docile personality may not have been ideal for a competitive athlete, but it would be the key to his new career.

When the movie version of Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" was being planned, the producers picked Hollywood veteran Rusty Hendrickson to train the horses. Hendrickson, who did similar work for "Dances with Wolves" and "The Horse Whisperer," employed scouts to hunt for inexpensive racehorses who could plausibly play Seabiscuit. Hendrickson said he sought horses who were "100 percent sound, with a good temperament, and the right color and size." (The real-life Seabiscuit had been described as a "runty little thing.") When one of Hendrickson's emissaries spotted Fighting Furrari, he purchased the horse from Hatcher for $2,000.

Hendrickson assembled 10 Seabiscuits and sought to identify the traits and skills in each that could be useful in different segments of the film.

Finders Key, who couldn't win in maiden $2,500 company at Los Alamitos, was adept at bucking and rearing as the hard-to-control Seabiscuit in the early stages of the story. I Two Step Too, whose last win had come in a five-furlong $1,600 claiming race at Boise, could accelerate for short bursts, and he was the star when Seabiscuit was accelerating past his competition.

But it was Fighting Furrari who had the most all-around talent as an actor. "A lot of racehorses are pretty skittish," Hendrickson said. "But he had a lot of courage around the commotion and the cameras. He was inquisitive. He was real accepting. He was a people horse."

Whenever Tobey Maguire, who played jockey Red Pollard, was seen on Seabiscuit, the horse was Fighting Furrari. He appeared in all the starting-gate shots as well as the scene at a railroad station. Owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) is taking the horse on a barnstorming tour around the country, and at one whistle-stop he addresses a crowd of fans while Seabiscuit stands among them. Even with dozens of people yelling and cheering, Seabiscuit/Fighting Furrari remains calm and unperturbed.

His only failing as an actor was the failing he exhibited as an athlete. Hendrickson observed that Fighting Furrari got winded from hard exertion. "He wasn't a horse who could get out and compete with the others," the trainer said. "We didn't use him as a racehorse." So other Seabiscuits got the crowd's cheers when he won his big races.

Since the completion of the movie, Fighting Furrari has been busy making promotional appearances. When jockeys Chris McCarron and Gary Stevens appeared on Fox's "The Best Damned Sports Show," they were shown arriving at the studio and checking the horse at valet parking. Fighting Furrari has been "interviewed" by numerous local TV commentators. He has made guest appearances at racetracks.

Officials at River Downs, where the horse did much of his racing, have said publicly that they would like to make him the track's official mascot, using him for pony rides and photo opportunities. But Fighting Furrari will enjoy a more upscale retirement.

Frank Marshall and his wife, Kathleen Kennedy, who produced "Seabiscuit," developed an interest in horses as a result of their involvement; they bought a small interest in the racehorse Atswhatimtalknbout, who finished fourth in this year's Kentucky Derby. As the movie was being made, Marshall observed, "Flying Furrari was the most gentle of horses and always a pleasure to be around."

Marshall and Kennedy decided to adopt him, boarding him at a ranch adjoining the property of their second home in Telluride, Colo. When their daughters, now 7 and 5, are a little older, Fighting Furrari will be their riding horse. He ought to enjoy a comfortable retirement worthy of the champion he portrayed.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post