A broken-down racehorse fixes broken people

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 6, 2003

I've just seen a motion picture about a demoralized racehorse and three beaten men that challenged me to be a more understanding, affirming and persevering member of the human race. Seabiscuit lunged from starting gates across the land to place fourth in theatre box offices last weekend and first in inspiration.

Based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book by the same title, the Gary Ross film is the story of one of the greatest racehorses of all time. But Seabiscuit didn't start out that way; he was small, rejected and frustrated – a noble horse that had lost sight of his true identity.

In fact, he wasn't too different from many of his human contemporaries in the Great Depression.

Along come three men whose lives mirror Seabiscuit's: his new owner, dejected millionaire car dealer Charles Howard (masterfully played by Jeff Bridges); down-on-his-luck horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper); and book-smart but punch-dumb boxer Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), who becomes the undersized Seabiscuit's oversized jockey.

Encouraged by Howard's second wife, Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), the three men patiently restore Seabiscuit till in the end he defeats Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938, and in spite of a blown ligament that should have sent him to the glue factory, and a jockey with a shattered leg who never should have ridden again, goes on to win the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940.

At heart, Seabiscuit is not about a perfect horse or perfect people, but about the power of patient perseverance in the face of adversity. As Smith says early on about another horse he has saved: "You don't throw a whole life away just because you're banged up a little."

Then upon encountering the abused Seabiscuit for the first time, Smith says to Charles: "They've got him so screwed up running in a circle, he's forgot what he was supposed to be"; and adds, "He just needs to learn how to be a horse again."

Later, when Red loses big time in a race and Smith wants him fired, Charlie responds, "Sometimes all somebody needs is a second chance." And echoing Smith's training philosophy, he adds: "You don't throw a whole life away just because it's banged up a little bit."

In the end, trainer Smith concludes: "Everybody thought we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but he fixed us."

I took in this movie twice in its opening weekend. That's one of the nice things about living in Cochrane. We may be a community of only 13,000, but we have one of the best theatres in Alberta only minutes away from our homes. And besides, Cochrane Movie House is air conditioned, perfect on a 30-degree-plus summer evening!

At any rate, after seeing Seabiscuit the first time, I sat down at a table at Java Express and brought the movie up with some of our coffee companions who are real horse lovers. Eagle publisher Jack Tennant was there, had also seen the film, and vouched enthusiastically for its authenticity.

Horse trainer and bridle-maker George Suel was at the table, too, and, although he had not seen the film yet, shared some of his wisdom about training horses.

He told us about an unbroken two-year-old part-Arabian mare he recently worked with. She was a terror to anyone who came near.

"But we had an agreement," George said. "I won't hurt her, and she won't hurt me." It's all about patience and gentleness, and that includes stroking the horse instead of beating it.

"The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man," George said.

After that pep talk, I had to see the film again, this time with an eye toward gentleness. At the theatre, Ivan Davies, another Cochrane horse lover, joined me.

Sure enough, early on we see trainer Tom Smith gently stroking the shoulder of a horse he just rescued from a bullet, and throughout the film, gentleness remains the way to go.

After the show, I asked Ivan what he thought of the film.

"Inspirational," he said. "Several times I got all choked up."

Well, me, too! To paraphrase George, Seabiscuit is good for the inside of anyone aspiring to become human.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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