07/17/2003 11:00PM

Rating racing films: French supreme

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NEW YORK - "Seabiscuit" fever is spreading across the nation as the film about the bandylegged little champion is readied for national release on Friday.

There hasn't been a major film about horse racing since 1983 when "Phar Lap," and "Champions" both premiered. Hollywood once had an intimate and fruitful relationship with racing. Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien founded Del Mar. Betty Grable, whose perfect pins carried her as far as Seabiscuit's crooked ones took him, owned a number of stakes winners. Mervyn LeRoy, the director of "Little Caesar" and "Gold Diggers of 1933," has a Grade 2 race named after him at Hollywood Park.

Until 1960, horse racing was one of the top major professional sports in America, and its influence on our culture was reflected in film. While no racing film has ever attained classic status, some are very good, while others are difficult to take seriously.

"National Velvet," made in 1944 by Clarence Brown, may be the best known of all racing films. It also ranks as one of the least believable.

That an unraced horse discovered in a country paddock could win the Grand National Steeplechase is not merely improbable, it is impossible, as first-time starters are barred from the race. It is also difficult to countenance Elizabeth Taylor as a rider with no racing experience changing places with a professional jockey minutes before the start.

"National Velvet" is not quite redeemed by either its surprisingly accurate re-creation of Aintree racecourse on a Pasadena golf course, or by a fine performance from Mickey Rooney as an ex-jockey afraid to resume his career after having been involved in a spill in which another rider died.

"Champions," on the other hand, is a Grand National film based firmly in reality. Made in Britain in 1983, it stars John Hurt as Bob Champion, a real-life jockey who recovered from brain cancer to ride the formerly broken down Aldaniti to victory in the 1981 Grand National. Hurt is convincing as Champion but the film suffers from a malady that plagues most racing films. It fails to avoid slipping into sentimentality as the beloved underdog overcomes all obstacles to win the big one as the music reaches an emotional crescendo.

"Phar Lap," the lavish Australian production about the famous horse from Down Under who met an untimely end in America, should have avoided that pitfall, given the drama implicit in Phar Lap's last days. Instead, director Simon Wincer lays the sentiment on thickly, with heartrending music video depictions of the great horse training up the side of a sand dune. Worse, he avoids a serious investigation into Phar Lap's death, presumably at the hands of disgruntled bookies who had been offering long odds on a horse they were led to believe had no talent.

Frederick Wiseman's brilliant "Racetrack" is the best racing documentary ever made. A detailed account of Belmont Park's 1981 spring season during which Pleasant Colony was preparing for his unsuccessful effort to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, it delves into every corner of life at the track.

The Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races" is not so much a racing film as a vehicle for the boys' anarchic brand of comedy, but it contains a scene that should be required viewing for all racegoers.

When Chico, an inveterate gambler in real life, cons Groucho into buying one trumped-up handicapping guide after another, they cunningly expose the myth that winners can be found in a magic number. Ever the debunkers, the Marx Brothers knew in 1937 that the only people who make money off the figs are the people who make the figs.

But when it comes to raising the racing film to the level of art, it is the French who win the Oscar. Rene Wheeler's rarely screened 1950 drama "Les premieres armes," or "First Weapons," rises above the limitations of the genre.

This is the story of a 14-year-old Parisian boy sent by his horseplaying stepfather to work at a stable in far off Bordeaux, where the trainer is a martinet whose arbitrary methods have the stable lads living in dread frustration. How our hero overcomes these injustices to emerge as a young man is what drives the film.

"It caused a scandal among French trainers after its premiere at Maisons-Laffitte," said Daily Racing Form artist Pierre Bellocq, aka Peb, who was present at that first screening. "They resented its depiction of the feudal-like conditions that really did exist in some French stables at that time."

But to return to America's favorite film jockey, Mickey Rooney. The co-star of 1979's "The Black Stallion" began a long association with Judy Garland in a 1937 racing musical, "Thoroughbreds Don't Cry," but probably gave his best racing performance in a 1961 episode of "The Twilight Zone" entitled "The Last Night of a Jockey."

In a one-man tour de force, Rooney portrays a rider on the skids frantically phoning trainers from his shabby apartment for mounts. The film works for the same reason as "Les premieres armes": It is not a teary-eyed celebration of an improbable equine victory, but an examination of a human being who just happens to be part of the racing industry.

By the same token, if "Seabiscuit" the film is to be as successful as Seabiscuit the racehorse, it must avoid the sentimental traps into which "Phar Lap" and "National Velvet" fell.