02/27/2004 12:00AM

Seabiscuit tour hits the red carpet

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The odds appear stacked against "Seabiscuit" winning the Oscar for Best Picture when the Academy Awards are handed out in Los Angeles on Sunday night.

In Las Vegas, where such propositions are required to be "for entertainment purposes only," casinos are making "Seabiscuit" 35-1 and higher in the face of their consensus favorite, "Lord of the Kings: The Return of the Ring." Or whatever it's called.

British bookmakers are not encumbered by Nevada legalities. They take your money with glee. A glance at Sporting Life's rundown of Oscar odds reveals "Seabiscuit" being laid at anywhere from 33-1 to 50-1. Again, that "King of the Ring" thing is heavily favored.

So, "Seabiscuit" fans, don't be hoping for your horse to pull off another miracle. Be proud, though, that "Seabiscuit" was nominated at all. It was a rare occurrence in Hollywood history, because you can count on one hand the number of true sports movies that have been up for a Best Picture Oscar since the Academy Awards began in 1927.

"The Champ" was among the 1931 nominees, although its maudlin mix of boxing and racing served more as a backdrop than a central theme. "Grand Hotel" won the Oscar that year.

In 1942, "The Pride of the Yankees" was among the Best Picture nominees, but the Academy preferred "Mrs. Miniver" to Lou Gehrig. Go figure.

Decades passed before a sports story was nominated again, but when it happened, in 1976, "Rocky" and Sylvester Stallone took home the Best Picture prize. Four years later, boxing was back among the Best Picture nominees for 1980, but how "Raging Bull" lost to "Ordinary People" remains a mystery to this day.

In 1981, the Academy did the right thing when "Chariots of Fire" upset "Reds" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." In some pools, "Chariots of Fire", an inspiring tale of the 1924 Olympics, was an even bigger longshot than "Seabiscuit."

Rounding out the short list, "Field of Dreams" was nominated for Best Picture in 1989 and "Jerry Maguire" in 1996, but it's a reach to call either one a true sports movie, since the only time their heroes got even a little bit dirty was to chop down corn or cut a deal. "Seabiscuit," to its credit, never leaves the playing field for long.

The "Seabiscuit" creative team will be there in force Sunday night, just in case one of its seven nominations comes through. Besides Best Picture, the film is up for best cinematography, editing, sound, art direction, costume design, and adapted screenplay.

There is no category for horse race choreographer, though, which is too bad, because Chris McCarron would win in a walk. McCarron designed the racing sequences in "Seabiscuit," from the rough and tumble bush track brawls to Seabiscuit's climactic match race with War Admiral.

You won't find McCarron at the Oscars, however. In his role as Santa Anita's general manager, he will be hosting his own Oscar party Sunday night after the races, at Santa Anita's new Sirona's restaurant and bar, overlooking the paddock gardens. The walking ring statue of Seabiscuit will undoubtedly get special lighting.

"We've invited about 150 people - owners, trainers, riders - and we'll put the Oscar show up on the big screen," said McCarron, who also played War Admiral's jockey, Charlie Kurtsinger, in the movie.

While "Seabiscuit" sold well in release and on DVD, the Seabiscuit story continues to be a draw at Santa Anita, through its weekly Seabiscuit Tours. McCarron conducts many of the tours himself, sharing duties with retired jockey and TVG commentator Corey Black.

Though it is time-consuming for a top executive, the tours have become McCarron's way of spreading the gospel of racing, one potential fan at a time. No doubt, it also can be a diversion from the tedious drone of general managerial chores, filled with the nagging stresses of wet tracks, short fields, and downward business trends.

When playing tour guide, McCarron escorts his large groups through doors forbiddingly labeled "Public Not Admitted." His job, as he sees it, is to demystify the racetrack and make its fascinating world accessible to everyone who wants a peek behind the scenes.

If a small sampling of one tour on a recent sunny Saturday is any indication, the Seabiscuit tours of Santa Anita are a public relations dream. McCarron had just led a group of about 30 wide-eyed civilians through their first experience with the jockeys' room, which included a few moments spent with leading rider Alex Solis at his cubicle.

"It was great that Alex was able to give us some of his time," McCarron said, "because he's on a pretty regimented schedule as he prepares to ride his seven or eight horses each day.

"Like all jockeys, Alex has to maintain a high level of fitness," McCarron said. "I only wish he would have taken off his shirt, to see just how ripped and buff his body is."

With perfect timing, from the back of the group, a female voice piped up:

"So do we."

Now that's star power.