Straight from the horse racer's mouth

The first time Tobey Maguire put his feet into the stirrups of a racehorse, he tried to gallop and do some posting. After a few minutes, "my legs were noodles, I could barely stand up," recalls Maguire of his experience training for his role as a jockey in "Seabiscuit," opening Friday.

Maguire got some help from Chris McCarron, who handled race design for the film. "He brought a mechanical horse into my house ... and Chris would coach me both for form and building up strength and endurance," Maguire says. "I'll tell you, those jockeys really earn their money. [They] were doing it seven days a week ... and riding six or seven races a day."

"Seabiscuit," based on Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling book of the same title, tells a true story set during the Great Depression of a down-and-out racehorse that takes a jockey (Maguire), a trainer (Chris Cooper), and a businessman (Jeff Bridges) on a ride to success. The men have all suffered tragedies, yet they manage to rebuild their lives through their faith in the horse Seabiscuit, who was initially dismissed as a runt no one could ride.

Until last year, Maguire was best known for critically acclaimed roles in smaller, more literary pictures such as "Pleasantville," "Wonder Boys," and "The Cider House Rules." Then came "Spider-Man," and the slightly built actor went from thoughtful critics' darling to box- office superhero overnight.

In addition to his rigorous training to ride like a jockey, Maguire had to undergo a dramatic physical transformation to fit the role of John "Red" Pollard.

"My routine was different from 'Spider-Man,' " he says. "I went on a diet and had to stay on it until the picture was over. It's not easy to maintain 115 pounds."

During filming, Maguire struggled with fatigue and an almost constant craving for sweets. "As the shooting continues, it becomes harder to keep on the training schedule.... [You're] so tired because you're not getting enough sleep, and all you dream about is sugar," he recalls. "There were a couple of times I'd have a mini breakdown and say, 'Just bring me as much candy and doughnuts as you can possibly carry.' "

Maguire became enthusiastic about starring in "Seabiscuit" after he read the novel. "I turned the final page ... and said right out loud, 'What a book,' " he says. "Then I phoned director, Gary Ross and yelled, 'It has real heart. When can we start?' "

Ross was delighted. "The only actor I could see as ... Red Pollard was Tobey Maguire," says Ross, who had directed Maguire in "Pleasantville," released in 1998. "I knew he had the talent and grit for the role.... He'd had struggles in life he could draw upon, and he had the determination to stay on a jockey's rigid diet."

Ross had already talked with the author of the book, Ms. Hillenbrand. "I realized why it had been on the bestseller list for so long," he says. "It was a love story of three men for a horse and for each other."

"I liked the way [Ross] drew my character in the screenplay," Maguire says. "It was very complex and true to life. I'd ridden horses in a movie, ['Ride with the Devil'], but I quickly realized these jockeys were real athletes. They are warriors."

Maguire has since started filming "Spider-Man 2" - after a contretemps that nearly cost him his career as a superhero. He reportedly told filmmakers that he wanted to postpone shooting because he was experiencing back problems. The studio replaced him with Jake Gyllenhaal. He got his job back thanks to a widely credited assist from his girlfriend's father, Universal president Ron Meyer.

For "Spider-Man 2," he's had to "bulk up" again, Maguire says, but "eventually you forget about appearances, and concentrate on the story. Like in 'Seabiscuit,' I got so caught up in the character, everything else began to fade."

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