08/06/2003 12:00AM

Talk about animal attraction


DEL MAR, Calif. - Have I got a movie for you. Beautifully photographed and set in exotic, breathtaking locales, it is based on a popular book full of vivid characters who are caught in the throes of social strife. As individuals, they are badly in need of redemption - a second chance in a harsh new world - and that redemption comes in the form of an unlikely hero. The hero, flawed but noble, courts personal danger, passes a test of great physical courage, and, in the end, carries the story to satisfying emotional heights.

Oh, you've seen it already? Sounds like "Seabiscuit?" Well, yes and no, because the synopsis above also describes "Whale Rider," and when it comes to delivering the mythmaking goods, nothing released in recent memory beats this work of New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro, based on the 1987 book by native Maori author Witi Ihimaera, and starring young Keisha Castle-Hughes in her first acting role. What a winning rider she is.

Of course, anyone who reads the pages of this publication has been inundated over the past several weeks by all things "Seabiscuit." Everyone's a critic, especially when it comes to movies, which means nearly everyone with a racing byline has weighed in with their own set of thumbs up or down. As if it ever makes a difference. I give you "American Pie."

The best movies strike a chord deep within the head, the heart, even the soul, or whichever port is most accessible at the time. Word of mouth takes over from there - we are, after all, a sharing culture - and then the best, most honest movies become as much a part of our consciousness as box scores and weather reports.

Unlike "Seabiscuit," "Whale Rider" does not benefit from the presence of familiar stars fresh from blockbuster action hits, or from a $25 million promotional budget, or from a widespread theater release. You've got to look for it, but it's still out there. Thank me later.

In the meantime, the "Seabiscuit" phenomenon continued to bubble through the racing world as the movie entered its third week of release. Whether or not "Seabiscuit" has the legs to make it through the competition from the next cycle of big-budget releases remains to be seen.

One thing is certain. For the scores of racetrackers who worked behind the scenes, "Seabiscuit" will stand forever as the best, most expensive home movie ever made.

Matt Chew, a second-generation California-based trainer, gets a "Seabiscuit" screen credit as "Racing Stable Manager," which means he helped supervise the care of the horses used to film the many racing sequences. Chew even had an on-camera experience.

"If you remember as they were loading into the starting gate for Seabiscuit's first race at Santa Anita, I'm on my pony in the background," Chew said. "You had to look quick, though. I figure I've got about 14 minutes, 59 1/2 seconds left on my 15 minutes of fame."

Like many of the people who worked on the movie, Chew hopes box office at the local cineplex will translate into a high profile for the racing game. He did his promotional part last weekend at Del Mar, on Seabiscuit Day, when he stood for hours in a small corral in the grandstand plaza as chaperone to Prisoner of War, one of the many plain bay Thoroughbreds who played Seabiscuit in the movie. They drew a steady crowd.

"It was amazing," Chew said. "There were a number of people who had never touched a horse, and some of them did it like they were petting a snake. But for others, you could see the rush of adrenaline. It really got them excited. Being around racehorses every day, you take it for granted. But can you imagine, going an entire lifetime without touching a horse?"

Unthinkable, but true. That is why the best moments in "Seabiscuit" were not necessarily the racing scenes, full of speed and danger. They were the more subtle contacts between man and beast - no whips or flying hooves in sight - when mutual reliance and mutual pleasure were quietly portrayed.

There was the glow on the face of actor Jeff Bridges when, as Charles Howard, he stuck his dress shoe into the stirrup of a gorgeous western saddle and threw a leg over a riding horse, while wearing suit, tie, and hat. "I haven't done this in 20 years," was the line. Whether Bridges was deep into character or not, he looked transformed.

Then there was that moment of high drama when Gary Stevens - as George Woolf - jumps off the injured Seabiscuit and cradles his damaged leg until help arrives. The scene was eerily familiar, until it was clear that Stevens was paying homage to his late friend, Chris Antley, who performed a similar act of compassion for Charismatic after the colt broke down nearing the finish of the 1999 Belmont Stakes.

There are those who feel that the highest purpose of "Seabiscuit"' is to send new fans flocking through the racetrack turnstiles. Better yet, maybe there will be that teenage kid who wakes up the day after seeing the movie and announces, "Mom, I want to get on a real horse."

Once they are hooked on the animal, they will find the game. And besides, it's a whole lot easier than riding a whale.