This summer, Tobey Maguire trades in his slinky ''Spider-Man'' suit for a set of racing silks to star as real-life jockey Red Pollard in the Gary Ross-directed ''Seabiscuit.'' Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book about the thoroughbred champion, the $86 million movie, opening July 25, is clearly designed more for Oscar voters than popcorn munchers. But in a season filled with second-rate sequels and oversize comic-book heroes, Universal's Depression-era drama could end up being that rarest of pleasures: a serious summer flick that rakes it in at the box office. Which would make 28-year-old Maguire, once again, the summer superhero.
Maguire's new status as a bankable Hollywood star doesn't surprise Ross, who directed him in 1998's ''Pleasantville'' and compares him to Hoffman and Pacino. Ross wrote the part of ''Seabiscuit'''s troubled jockey Pollard specifically for Maguire. ''It was flattering to think that he was writing with me in mind,'' says the actor. ''Gary knows me well, and I think he wrote it to my strengths.'' Which would be? ''Well, you know, being...resilient, a tough survivor, having his guard up a bit but being capable of being open as well.'' Ross concurs: ''He embodies all the contradictions that are inherent in Red Pollard, a prizefighter who carried a worn-out copy of Shakespeare in his pocket. Tobey is a gentle soul who is unbelievably tough.''