A year ago, Gary Ross was grappling with the animal planet in a very different way, developing the comedy ”Dog Years” with Jim Carrey and Nicole Kidman. But when that project fell apart, the director jumped on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling ”Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” about the unlikely equine champion who became a Depression-era sensation. Within months, Ross was out of the gate along with his cast. Fresh off the blockbuster ”Spider-Man,” Tobey Maguire was tapped to play Red Pollard, the boxer-turned-jockey who, despite being blind in one eye, rode the grumpy, bowlegged Seabiscuit to glory. Chris Cooper — before ”Adaptation” made him an Oscar winner — took on the role of Tom Smith, the often-silent trainer, and Jeff Bridges rounded out the trio as Charles Howard, the automobile magnate who owned the great thoroughbred.
Logistics made filming ”Seabiscuit” anything but a day at the races. About 60 horses were retrained for five months before their on-screen appearances; six ended up standing in for Seabiscuit. And actually planning the track sequences required four months of almost daily meetings between Ross, his camera crew, and the horse coordinator. ”You have cameras and horses moving at 45 miles an hour in close proximity,” explains Ross. ”It’s very difficult and very dangerous.” (Helping keep things safe was Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who acted as an on-set consultant and rides in the film.)
While there were many Seabiscuits, Ross decided early on there was only one actor to play Pollard. ”Gary said, ‘I’m writing the part for you,’ and it was pretty much that simple,” says Maguire, who worked with the director on 1998’s ”Pleasantville” and was to have a small part in ”Dog Years.” Having saddled up once before — for Ang Lee’s 1999 Civil War drama ”Ride With the Devil” — Maguire was even able to ride in a few scenes. As for the training and weight loss, ”it wasn’t that big of a deal, given what the jockeys go through,” he says. ”For them it’s 52 weeks a year. These guys are professional athletes, and anyone who doesn’t think so is wrong.” And that’s coming from a superhero.