dir. Ross

Opens Fri July 25

Various Theaters

The story of Seabiscuit--the unlikely champion of racehorses--is a remarkable tale about underdogs. In terms of heart-tugging sport stories, it ranks up there with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and Lance Armstrong's battle over cancer. Before being discovered by an oddball trainer in the 1930s, Seabiscuit was a lazy lie-around horse with a goofy gait. He was unruly, abused, and could barely keep pace in minor-league country fair races.

But coupled with a nearly blind and down-on-his-luck jockey, Seabiscuit stormed into the top tier of horseracing and, for a stretch of three years or so, became the most written-about celebrity in America. The moral, as the new film version of the horse's life crams down our gullet, is "you don't throw a whole life away because it's banged up a little."

Yet in spite of this spirited true-life story, the tale has rarely been told well. Last year, rookie novelist Laura Hillenbrand wrote a best-selling novel that was little more than a re-write of newspaper clippings; a fourth grader with decent research skills could have delivered the same story.

And now DreamWorks has done further injustice by kicking Seabiscuit's corpse for the sake of a summer blockbuster. It's unclear why DreamWorks bothered to work with a true story. The film version deletes and adds major facts at will. Worst of all, the producers remove what they apparently considered unsavory or uninteresting information about Seabiscuit's follies and losses. And in a classic Disney turn of events, they also clean and sober up Seabiscuit's primary jockey, Red (played by Tobey Maguire), who was endlessly profane and often drunk in real life.

Even at the peak of his career, Seabiscuit was inconsistent, which is what makes a true champion compelling. Without these complications and uncertainties, DreamWork's version of Seabiscuit simply becomes "horse runs, horse wins." The end result is a family movie that will bore the kids to tears and a sporting film with no real challenges. Sorry Tobey Maguire, but the best rendering is still the PBS version, which has enough horse sense to step out of the way and let the real story tell itself. (American Experience, Monday, OPB, 9 pm.)