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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 October, 2003, 10:47 GMT
Jockey rides into Hollywood
By Frank Keogh

Top American jockey Gary Stevens believes he is on the verge of another big winner - with the new racing movie Seabiscuit.

Jockey turned actor Gary Stevens
Stevens was listed in US magazine People's 50 most beautiful people in the world
Others included Britney Spears and George Clooney

Stevens, with almost 5,000 victories to his name, was selected to play rider George 'Iceman' Woolf in the film which tells the true story of a remarkable racehorse.

But he nearly missed the UK launch of the blockbuster, which is already being tipped as an Oscar contender, after an horrific race accident two months ago left him lucky to be alive.

The 40-year-old suffered a collapsed lung and a broken vertebra in his upper back after tumbling from Storming Home after crossing the finishing line of the Arlington Million in Chicago.

He returned to action just 19 days later, but knows he is fortunate despite being able to laugh off the fall.

"I thought I was going to get disqualified, and I'm going to get killed too," joked the Hall of Fame jockey.

"I've always been afraid of death, but I'm not afraid anymore. It showed me that I'm mortal and that it is going to happen some day. I'm enjoying life much more now."

Seabiscuit, based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, gives Stevens an ideal opportunity to start a new chapter in his life.

He joined an impressive cast list which sees Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire play Seabiscuit jockey Red Pollard, with Jeff Bridges as the charismatic owner Charles Howard.

One-eyed former prize-fighter Pollard, struggling Howard and near-mute trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) triumphed over adversity by taking Seabiscuit to glory.

Tobey Maguire stars as Seabiscuit's jockey

The film grossed more than $120m in America, and Stevens expects even bigger things when it plays to UK audiences in November.

"I feel this film might be bigger here than in the States, because of the huge following horse racing has. You guys are so much more horsey than we are," said the three-time Kentucky Derby winner.

"We have done well against all odds - horse racing does not appeal to the general public over in the States."

While he insists a second retirement - he briefly stepped down four years ago before a comeback - is not on the cards, it is clear acting could provide a future career.

"You won't see me making an announcement that I've retired, because it's damn embarrassing to unretire," he said.

"I did it once and I'm not going to make that mistake again."

But his easy transition into the role of Woolf has clearly attracted interest from film-makers, and Stevens talks of a project in the Spring, which he will not elaborate on.

He plans to "chase and pursue" acting opportunities, and has enjoyed encouragement from "some pretty important people."

If you can sit through the film with a dry eye, you're a better man than me
Gary Stevens on Seabiscuit

The jockey was sent to renowned acting coach Larry Moss for a few days training, but only needed just one day. "He just had a natural ability," said film director Gary Ross.

Stevens believes his life in the saddle was ideal preparation for a role, in which his character mirrors his own flamboyant attitude.

"With so many different personalities in racing, you really have to switch on and off," said Stevens, who lists Al Pacino, Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman as his acting heroes.

"I play myself in the film. It was not difficult - I've spent 24 years being seasoned for it. "

He believes the Seabiscuit story transcends sport, and appeals to a much wider audience.

"It's something everybody can relate to - about the difficulties in life, success, humanity and failure," he said.

"If a person can sit through that film with a dry eye, they are a better man than I am."

  • Seabiscuit opens in London on Friday 31 October and nationwide on 7 November.

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