Actor/rider Otto Thorwarth, who played Secretariat’s original jockey, Ronnie Turcotte, is now an ordained minister working as a chaplain in Kentucky. He holds bible studies each week at Horseshoe Indianapolis Casino and Racetrack and baptises new Christians in a horse trough.
The bulletin board was the idea of the cinematographer, and director Randall Wallace. He had grown up a Southern Baptist attending tent revivals, which is probably why Disney hired him for this squeaky-clean racehorse film which never once referred to bookmakers.
Australian cinematographer, Dean Semler – who was mentioned in the article on Dances with Wolves in our December issue – shot adventurous and unique high-action footage. In many sequences he used an Olympus PEN camera. “It could sit inches above the track, a few feet behind the horses, close to their noses or chests, or on the jockeys’ faces or hands. What’s more, if something happened, it could be pulled out immediately. The safety advantage was huge. It was used in the dirt, right behind the horses’ hooves, and looking forward down the track as they broke out of the gate. I also put one at the top of the starting gate, looking straight down on Secretariat as he went out. It was a quick piece, but it’s the final cut.”
Semler was very proud of a slow-motion sequence at the winning post. “In real time it was no longer than a half-second, but in slomo it was 30. You see every muscle, every hair. There’s one moment, just as he crosses that line, where he’s airborne — all four legs off the ground! We did only two takes. It’s just spectacular!”
This film was responsible for one of the actors taking up the cause of retired Thoroughbreds in the US that are often shipped for slaughter after finishing their racing lives. James Cromwell, who played billionaire stockbroker and breeder Ogden Phipps, became a voice for giving a fair go to horses leaving the track. And when starring as Farmer Hoggett in Babe several years before in Australia, he had become a vegan motivated by working with a lot of animals and trainers.
The 82-year-old actor is clearly a committed animal activist. After the 2011 Kentucky Derby he wrote to the Jockey Club that “these magnificent animals shouldn’t end up on a meat hook after a terrifying journey to a terrifying death”. And in May last year, he superglued his hand to a Starbucks’ counter protesting the coffee chain’s extra charge for plant-based milk.
Critics appreciated his performance in Secretariat, saying he “convincingly portrayed a man who, by all rights, ought to be snobbish but ended up a delight”.