07/23/2003 11:00PM

Hollywood fails at the wire

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - If you were a hoops purist, you wouldn't go to see "Air Bud," the 1997 Disney movie about a jump-shooting golden retriever, expecting an accurate depiction of the nuances and details of professional basketball. A racing fan who brings a similarly lowered set of expectations to "Seabiscuit" will improve his chances of enjoying a well-crafted piece of Hollywood entertainment rather than grinding his teeth and rolling his eyes at the movie's flaws and its overriding disregard for the truth.

There's a lot to like about "Seabiscuit," which opened Friday. It doesn't feel as long as its 135 minutes, it's visually gorgeous, and the performances by Chris Cooper, Jeff Bridges, and Tobey Maguire are excellent, as is Gary Stevens's rookie acting turn as jockey George Woolf. The overall depiction of horses and racing as capable of healing wounded lives paints a powerfully positive picture of a game usually depicted as only a backdrop for mischief and crime.

All of that makes the film's liberties with history, and its own source material, a surprising disappointment. Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book was widely praised for the quality of its research and attention to detail. What made the story compelling was that it really happened. No movie could have replicated it all - the average two-hour movie based on a book contains only 3 percent of what appears in the original manuscript. Still, it's a shame that the moviemakers consistently chose fiction over fact in what is supposed to be a biography rather than a fantasy.

Most of these lapses are in details significant to nit-pickers and racing historians, but the climactic final sequence of the movie is an unforgivable flight of fancy. Stop reading here if you don't know or want to know whether Seabiscuit won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap with which the movie ends.

Okay, yes, he wins it, but not in any way, shape or form related to the actual running of the race. In reality, Seabiscuit raced close up throughout and won narrowly over stablemate Kayak II. (Let's not even get into whether Kayak was yanked, legal under the "declare to win" rules of the time, since even Hillenbrand wouldn't go there in her book.)

In the movie, however, Seabiscuit drops ridiculously far back as if he's Silky Sullivan, then makes a cartoonish run to make up dozens of lengths and blast by the field as if his opponents are standing still. On top of that, Woolf pulls his own mount in the race 10 lengths back, supposedly in order to motivate Seabiscuit to begin running. It's a shame that the filmmakers did not respect either the truth of history or the realities of racing enough to tell the equally compelling story of how races in general, and this race in particular, are really run.

Early reviews of the movie have been overwhelmingly positive, which is crucial to the film's potential success. In a summer where Hollywood is churning out little but no-risk action sequels, "Seabiscuit" is rightly winning acclaim for being roughly 100 times more thoughtful, restrained and nuanced than "Charlie's Angels 2" or "Terminator 3." Unfortunately, those very qualities make the $87 million "Seabiscuit" a risky venture that required backing from three studios to get made at all. It will be heartening if "Seabiscuit" wins this weekend's box-office race against the two other films making their debuts, sequels to "Tomb Raider" and "Spy Kids."

Whether it does or not seems highly unlikely to affect business in the racing industry. One trade-magazine reviewer gushed that the movie could cause racing to "catapult to a level not seen since the days of The Biscuit himself." A lovely fantasy, but making it come true would likely require the simultaneous elimination of a few other distractions since 1940, including television, the Internet, state lotteries, and casinos.

It certainly can't hurt for the industry to ride the coattails of a $25 million marketing campaign for the movie, but "Seabiscuit" is no more likely to create new horseplayers than "Spiderman" was to increase the popularity of studying insects or "Chicago" was to increase tourism to the Windy City. Lowered expectations are in order here, too.