Racing: Seabiscuit loses by a short-head in race to join top five films

'Hopefully, Pat Eddery will prove me wrong and get a part in Emmerdale'

Last Tuesday evening, at the Charlotte Street Hotel in London, the British Horseracing Board hosted a preview of the film Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller about the plucky little horse which captivated Americans during the 1930s.

I was among those invited, and happily partook of champagne and prawny canapés (but not devils-on-horseback, surprisingly, in the light of the jockeys' strike over limitations on mobile-phone use) until it was time to file through for the screening. The film was introduced by its writer, producer and director, Gary Ross, who pointed out the irony of explaining to a bunch of sports writers and horse-racing officials how he had choreographed horse races; the choreography of horse races being, in the normal scheme of things, decidedly illegal.

Ross exuded the easy self-confidence of a man whose film has already been hugely successful in America, taking over $100m in the month following its release. He and Hillenbrand were even fêted at the White House, where President George W Bush emerged from a screening reportedly with tears in his eyes, although we shouldn't rule out the possibility that they were tears of disappointment, unleashed by the realisation that it was not, after all, a film about biscuits.

The BHB, meanwhile, has been almost indecently keen to associate itself with the success of Seabiscuit, sponsoring the forthcoming première and brokering the film's own sponsorship of Saturday's St Leger.

Clearly the BHB, some would say uncharacteristically, has backed a winner.

Seabiscuit is bound to do well in Britain, where the virtues demonstrated by the horse and its half-blind jockey, Red Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire), are valued perhaps even more than they are in America: pluck against the odds, never say die, that kind of thing. Moreover, we British love a good film about horse-racing. I myself have seen Maneater, starring George Formby, at least three times, although admittedly not since I turned nine.

Seabiscuit cannot hold a candle to Maneater in its depiction of what it is like to be a ukelele-toting Lancastrian with a funny face, riding three sheets to the wind and crying "hee, hee, you can't catch me". In other respects, though, and it pains me to say this, it is perhaps the superior film. The camerawork is terrific, the direction slick, the acting impressive.

Particularly impressive is Gary Stevens, making his motion-picture debut, as the great jockey George "The Iceman" Woolf, who took Seabiscuit's reins when Pollard broke his leg. Stevens is a real jockey, one of America's best, with more than 4,700 wins to his name, including three Kentucky Derbys. It is the equivalent of casting Pat Eddery, though I can't see Eddery showing his emotional range at the snap of a clapperboard. Hopefully, he'll prove me wrong now that he's retired, and get a part in Emmerdale.

There is much, then, to admire about Seabiscuit the film. And yet those who have read Seabiscuit the book, as I have, will almost certainly feel short-changed. In fairness, I can't think of many films which exceed or even match the quality of the books that inspire them. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest did. The Godfather did. Seabiscuit doesn't get close, but then that's largely because it is such a fantastic book. If you haven't read it then you should, but to enhance your enjoyment of the film, watch that first.

Had I not already read the book, Seabiscuit might have edged along the rails into my top five of favourite sports films. Even though there is something too calculatedly sentimental about it, the racing sequences are superb, undeniably.

As it is, though, my top five remain unchallenged. And for the record, they are: Chariots of Fire, Raging Bull, This Sporting Life, The Hustler and The Best of Times, a comedy about American football starring Robin Williams and Kurt Russell, which was panned by the critics but which I unashamedly loved, not least because American football and comedy, to me, are inextricable partners.

I make no apology for my devotion to Chariots of Fire, either, even though it has become an increasingly unfashionable film to like and is tiresomely mauled in the Time Out Film Guide, which calls it - deep breath - "an overblown piece of self-congratulatory emotional manipulation perfectly suited for Thatcherite liberals".

Well bugger me, there I was thinking that it told a cracking story brilliantly. I even recommended it the other day to the rugby union star and born-again Christian Jason Robinson, thinking that he might identify with the tale of Eric Liddell, the Scotland wing three-quarter who became an Olympic athlete and felt, as Robinson does, that it was God's will that he should run like the wind.

But perhaps Robinson shouldn't watch Chariots of Fire. We don't want him deciding, just before a World Cup, that it's wrong to compete on the Sabbath. He and his formidable team-mates probably shouldn't watch Seabiscuit either. This is no time to remind them of the power of the underdog.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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