02/25/2005 12:00AM

Racetrack's full of celluloid heroes


ARCADIA, Calif. - This time last year, the racing world was aflutter over the idea that "Seabiscuit," a movie about a racehorse, was up for honors as best picture of the year, and nominated in six other Oscar categories as well. Chris McCarron, who served as race choreographer and consultant on the film, went so far as to throw an Oscar night party at Santa Anita Park, in hopes of a happy ending.

"Seabiscuit" lost, 0 for 7, but its impact lingers on. Racing movies now abound, including the fabulous 2005 release "Racing Stripes," which includes animated horseflies frolicking in manure, ham-handed references to everything from "Babe" to "Rebel Without a Cause," and the obligatory girl jockey. How ridiculous, a girl jockey.

The Oscars for 2004 will be passed around Sunday night in Los Angeles, with billions - billions! - watching around the globe. And while there are no traditional horse racing movies among the five nominated in the best picture category, they all seem to brush up against the world of Thoroughbreds in a variety of ways. Such as . . .

"Ray" - A good movie about the retired jockey Ray Sibille was long overdue. All the great melodramatic elements were in place. Raised in the poverty of the Deep South and burdened with a physical handicap - in his case a serious stutter - he ventured boldly into the world and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams on the wings of his unique talents, winning more than 4,200 races.

Racing fans can be forgiven, though, if they come away wondering if the version of the tale that finally made it to the screen bears any resemblance to the real thing. (For instance, Sibille says his version of "I Can't Stop Loving You" takes much longer to sing.) Hollywood took its usual license - there were changes in plot, character, and historical events - but Sibille insists the spirit of his story remains intact.

"Oh yeah, the movie is about my life," Sibille insisted. "They did change it around a little bit, though. They made it about a guy who can't see. I'm the guy who can't talk. Other than that, the story is the same."

"Sideways" - It is a little-known fact that wine connoisseur and superstar jockey Alex Solis lobbied long and hard to do all the stunt work on the Alexander Payne movie set in the wine country of California's Santa Ynez Valley. His only demand was a steady supply of fine coastal California pinot noir.

Then Solis got hold of the script, and the deal was off. It didn't bother him that he would be asked to run a car into a tree, or that he would need to sustain a beating with a motorcycle helmet. He is, after all, a jockey. In the end, he refused to be a part of a project that would dare to make fun of his beloved merlot.

Still, "Sideways" has become a favorite in the Solis household.

"We love it," Solis said, including his wife, Sheila. "Every time she whines about something, I call her Miles."

"Finding Neverland' - Oddly enough, the original concept under the same title was designed as a racing movie, with a horse trainer (inspired by John Servis) mystically transported back to June 5, 2004, and given a chance to reshape the most important moment of his professional life. Sort of like "It's a Wonderful Life," only without the suicide angle.

Servis begged off, however, and suggested instead that the studio pay real close attention to the spring of 2005. If things go right, they just might have another, even better sequel to "Rocky." And they won't even need Sylvester Stallone.

"The Aviator" - Here we have an all-American biopic about urine collection, an unhealthy fascination with movie stars, rampant spending on harebrained schemes, and constant railing at the powers of government control, featuring megalomanical entrepreneurs, crooked politicians, and a frothing press. Hmmm, sounds just like an average day in the life of Thoroughbred racing.

"Million Dollar Baby" - It was probably no more than an exquisite coincidence, but when screenwriter Paul Haggis put the words into Maggie's mouth that she "had to fight to get into this world" as a 2 1/2-pound newborn and would fight just as hard to leave it, he was channeling nothing less than the legend of Bill Shoemaker. It wasn't even a stretch.

For better or worse, boxing and horse racing always have been a cultural fit. They share a pedigree as blood sports, brimming with rich lore, unforgettable characters, and emotional extremes, while constantly struggling to find a niche in modern society.

There were moments in the film between young boxer and old manager that conjured images of the teenage Steve Cauthen and grizzled Lenny Goodman, or even of today's flourishing May-December partnership of Tyler Baze and Ivan Puhich. If you can find one, I would recommend viewing the movie in the company of an athlete. Any athlete will do. Then glance their way and check the knowing nod when Frankie Dunn's mantra is delivered:

"Tough ain't enough."