07/18/2003 12:00AM

A tough life for art to imitate

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The movie opens with the redheaded horseman galloping breakneck over a country road. He is dressed in period costume. The low sun casts a golden glow. It is a beautiful sight.

But it's not "Seabiscuit."

In fact, this particular film is a late-1999 release called "Ride With the Devil," a Civil War drama described as "slow and forbidding" by critic Roger Ebert. Needless to say, it was not a hit. In fact, it did less than $1 million in U.S. gross receipts and promptly disappeared in to the world of discerning home video entertainment.

It was, however, Tobey Maguire's first screen role in the company of horses, giving him a leg up on the part of Red Pollard, Seabiscuit's jockey, in the movie based upon Laura Hillenbrand's telling of the tale.

"Seabiscuit" opens this week. But you knew that. Racing fans have been kept informed of its coming with the fevered intensity of a moon landing, or an L.A. freeway chase. Racetrack patrons from New York to California can barely turn around without smacking into a "Seabiscuit" poster, a "Seabiscuit" knickknack, or an entry form for a contest linked to a "Seabiscuit" premiere.

Whether "Seabiscuit" will have the coattails to drag the sport of horse racing back into the limelight of the 1930's remains to be seen. "All the President's Men" sparked a rash of journalism school enrollments, while "Ordinary People" gave the psychiatric industry boost. On the other hand, the success of "A Beautiful Mind" has hardly sent youngsters scrambling for a career in mathematics.

One thing is certain. "Seabiscuit" will focus attention upon the profession of the Thoroughbred jockey like no movie has before. Maguire's portrayal of John "Red" Pollard, the half-blind, knockaround journeyman who was nearly crippled in the line of duty, could shed light on a part of the racing game that has romantic appeal, but very little understanding.

In an almost-exclusive interview - conducted on the day before the Belmont Stakes last month over the telephone - Maguire talked about his approach to playing Pollard, and what he learned from the part. He was rooting for Funny Cide.

Maguire, 28, confessed to having acquired a profound respect for the physical demands needed to guide a racehorse in competition. Not that he actually rode a racehorse in competition. It will only look that way in the movie, what with camera angles and stunt doubles.

"The general public doesn't give jockeys enough credit," said Maguire, who stands a lean 5 foot 8, approximately Pollard's height. "They are professional athletes, just as much as the guys on the Lakers. They play a 52-week season. And they're so strong, like little machines.

"The funny thing about jockeys, they are a little bit like 'xtreme' athletes, " Maguire said. "They have a wild, on-the-edge attitude, but at the same time they take care of each other out there."

Maguire confessed to his own streak of daredevil antics. In younger days, his weapon of choice was a three-wheel all-terrain vehicle. He was asked if he had the scars to prove it. He said he did.

"I flipped one once and the peg nearly stabbed me in the back," Maguire said. "My dad was there and saw it all. But I was down and I didn't know what happened until they told me later."

To prepare for the part of Pollard, Maguire slimmed down from his "Spider-Man" weight and went to work on an Equicizer under the supervision of Chris McCarron, who served as a consultant on the film. The mechanical contraption allows the rider to simulate the pushing action of a jockey's upper body on the neck of a running horse while perched in a proper jockey's crouch. It's not easy. In the movie, Maguire's close-up racing action was filmed on the Equicizer.

"I remember getting up on the stirrups and riding for about 30 seconds," Maguire said. "My legs went all noodley. Then, on a real horse, posting was tough. After a while, though, I started thinking I'd like to actually ride a race. I thought about challenging Gary. He's the kind of guy who might do it."

He meant the director, Gary Ross, not the real life jockey, Gary Stevens, who plays the part of George Woolf, Pollard's friend and colleague.

Maguire describes Pollard as man of conflicts, ripe material for any actor.

"He could be difficult, a victim of his own demons," Maguire said. "He was semi-abandoned as a kid. Started drinking. But he had a great heart, and he had this ability to make horses run. He ended up finding a family at the racetrack."

To Stevens, in his first movie role, it seemed eerily familiar. For the Hall of Fame rider, it was not a stretch to fathom Woolf's connection to Pollard. Stevens merely called upon his relationship with fellow jockey Chris Antley, whose drug-related death in December of 2000 - ruled a suicide by police - still haunts Stevens.

"Tobey Maguire, in the character of Red Pollard, was Chris Antley to me," Stevens said. "Red's personal life had fallen apart because of what he was doing to himself, just to try and be successful. He is disrespected. He's trying to keep his weight down. He was doing what he had to do to stay in this circus, and he wound up almost destroying his life."

Sounds grim, but there could be a happy ending, beyond the dramatic fact that a broken-up Red and a banged-up Seabiscuit win the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. Stevens is hoping that "Seabiscuit" will do even more than entertain the masses. He is convinced that it will raise consciousness and lead to the improvement of working conditions for jockeys everywhere.

"Tobey Maguire lived the life for the better part of a year," Stevens said this week after a round of press promotions. "It's there in his performance. Staying light, keeping fit, and keeping mentally sharp.

"The question I've been asked most often on these press junkets is this: Does the film really depict the jockeys as they were?" Stevens said. "And I say, 'Not as they were. As they are.' In many ways, it is no different now, in 2003, than it was in 1938.

"The weights are still the same as were in 1938, while the human race is bigger. The lack of respect shown to jockeys has not changed. We're referred to as pinheads. We're supposed to be uneducated. At least, that's the perception of a lot of trainers.

"There are a few things better," Stevens said, "but if you walk into the jockeys' room at Santa Anita, for instance, it's like it hasn't changed since the 1930's. The heating system is the same, and there's no air-conditioning. I quit killing the cockroaches in my cubicle because I feel sorry for them. I've given them names."

Stevens is not alone in hoping that "Seabiscuit" has residual effects. The racing industry is backing it to the hilt, praying that movie fans will want to go directly from the cineplex to the track. As one of the film's executive producers, Maguire has a stake in the box office, above and beyond his salary, which approximates the total purse distribution on a Breeders' Cup program.

"What I had to do was nothing like a real jockey," Maguire said. "That would be like pretending I was playing in the NBA. There was the pressure to make it look right, and a certain amount of strength and dexterity required. But the danger was not high.

"Mainly," Maguire said, "I wanted to be true to Red."