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‘Dreamer’ directed by true horse-racing fan

John Gatins hopes ‘Seabiscuit’s’ success bodes well for his film
/ Source: The Associated Press

John Gatins had what he thought was a terrific idea for a movie: Tell the story of a dispirited trainer who nurses a broken-down thoroughbred back to health and into the winners’ circle in a prominent race.

But as he pitched his script, Gatins met an obstacle — there was another movie coming out with a remarkably similar tale. “Seabiscuit,” of course, became a box-office hit in 2003. Eventually, Gatins found a studio willing to take a chance on his film.

“Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story” made its Bluegrass State debut Tuesday night at the historic Kentucky Theater, and Gatins said it was ironic that the success of “Seabiscuit” could bode well for his movie.

“It was so well received, and people have really such a strong memory of that movie,” Gatins said. “As people have begun to see ‘Dreamer,’ they recognize how different they are but how great they both fit together in a way.”

The “Dreamer” director-screenwriter said that although “Seabiscuit” was a beautiful movie, it “kind of made my life difficult, because my script was around before they came around and they had a lot of bigger clout attached to it.”

“I just didn’t give up and just kind of kept at it,” he said. “It fell apart at one studio, and DreamWorks was the one who stepped up and gave me the chance to do it. It’s been four years and a long, long process.”

Gatins became a racing fan while growing up near Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. With his film set in Kentucky, he wanted to film as much as he could at Keeneland Race Course. He contacted Keeneland President Nick Nicholson two years ago about that possibility.

“I could tell 30 seconds into the conversation that he was a race fan,” Nicholson said.

So as he did for “Seabiscuit,” Nicholson allowed Keeneland to be used for the filming of “Dreamer.” The benefits of doing so are more than economical, he said: “Lexington looks good in this movie.”

“Dreamer” stars Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Elisabeth Shue and Kris Kristofferson. It is loosely based on the story of Mariah’s Storm, a 2-year-old filly who broke a bone in one of her legs while running in the Alcibiades, a major stakes race at Keeneland. Some horses with similar injures are euthanized, but Mariah’s Storm was not.

After being nursed back to health on the Oklahoma farm of her trainer, Donnie Von Hemel, Mariah’s Storm returned to the racetrack in July 1994. She won four stakes races as a 3-year-old and ran in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff as a 4-year-old.

“Dreamer” opens in theaters nationwide Friday.