Otto Thorwarth (jockey and actor) and Ronnie Turcotte (Secretariat’s original jockey) answered some questions about the making-of and the real-life story behind Secretariat, available on DVD and Blu-ray on January 25.
Q: How do you feel about the film?
Ron Morel Turcotte: Otto played me very well. It was very close to real life. His acting was really good. Diane did a really good job playing Penny.
Q: What sort of training did you do to prepare for the film?
Otto Thorwarth: Virtually none. I found out on a Monday that I got the role and then we started filming on Thursday, so I really didn’t have any advance notice. Luckily I’ve been doing this for 15 years so it wasn’t too difficult to prepare for this role.
Q: What sort of training did you do to prepare for riding the real Secretariat?
Ron Morel Turcotte: I rode most races every day and was really fit all around. I’d run a couple miles before getting to the race track every morning and then gallop or work horses from 6-10am. And I had to be in the jockey’s room by 12:00pm.
Q: How difficult was it to shoot those racing scenes with the cameras and cars right next to you while you’re speeding through the track?
Otto Thorwarth: It wasn’t easy that’s for sure. It was certainly an adjustment, for me and the horse, to have a filming truck pass between us as we are racing.
Q: Do you feel the portrayal of horse racing in the film was accurate?
Otto Thorwarth: Yes I did. I think they did a really good job. Horse racing fans and horseman are the biggest critics and I have had nothing but compliments from the likes of D. Wayne Lucas and John Ward…and those are some high accolades.
Q: Ron Turcotte is pretty much a legend amongst jockeys. While working on “Secretariat,” did you spend time with Ron and what was the biggest thing you have learned from him?
Otto Thorwarth: I met Ron the day before I started filming and only got a chance to have dinner with him. I didn’t get to spend much time with him to prepare for the role and wish I had been able to. However, I picked up how confident and proud he is as a jockey and with his lifetime achievements/career.
Q: This is your first big acting role. Do you see any similarities between horse racing in acting?
Otto Thorwarth: This was my first acting role, yes. And no there aren’t many similarities between acting and racing. In racing you only get one shot when the gates open. With acting, luckily, I have several chances. In fact, John Malkovich’s advice to me was to take my time and take as many shots as I needed to get it right. That was a huge relief.
Q: On the Blu-ray release, Mike Smith talks about his horse Zenyatta and how the horse knows how to race and knows what to do without the jockey telling it what to do and that’s very rare. Was Secretariat the same? And what is your best memory of riding Secretariat?
Ron Morel Turcotte: Secretariat was very trackable. If the pace was too slow, I could put him on the lien. As seen in the movie, and The Preakness, when I came from last to first, on the first turn. I have to say that The Preakness was probably one of the best races he ran. Even though the Belmont was just incredible it was not unexpected. Especially the way he trained for the Belmont. He was the Iron Horse and it didn’t really surprise me that he won by that margin. The time was out- of- this -world. It was an incredible race.
Q: Did you feel any pressure portraying Ron in the film?
Otto Thorwarth: No pressure. But at the same time, since I didn’t get a lot of time to hang out with him, I just wanted to make sure that I portrayed him accurately. He was the first person I went up to at the premiere to ask him what he thought and he said I did a good job.
Q: What was your relation to horse races before working in the film?
Otto Thorwarth: I was a professional jockey for 15 years.
Q: Do you feel the portrayal of yourself and horse racing in the film was accurate?
Ron Morel Turcotte: Yes, for myself it was great. The scene where I was at the paddock with my saddle, the proximity of the stable and the jockeys’ room was really close, but people that don’t know about horse racing wouldn’t know the difference. It was a great scene in a sense.
Q: You worked with Diane Lane, playing Penny Chenery but did you have a chance to meet the real Penny Chenery and what were your thoughts?
Otto Thorwarth: Yes, I did get to meet the real Penny and she was portrayed in the movie almost perfectly. She was a very confident person in the movie and, from what I can tell, was a very determined lady who gets what she wants. I was so honored to have met her. She was very sweet. I first met her in an elevator at the hotel (we weren’t introduced by anyone) and we immediately introduced ourselves and then I saw her a few times on set and at the premiere. What a great lady!
Q: We know that the owners, primarily Sham’s owner, was always talking bad about Secretariat before a race. But curious, was there any bad blood between you and Sham’s jockey before each race of the Triple Crown? Did he also try to antagonize or bother you during a race?
Ron Morel Turcotte: The jockey on Sham, Laffit Pincay, and I were friends all along. I rode there. We were both tough competitors, but there was no bad blood between us. He was a gentleman rider and a very clean rider. As tough as he was, he rode his horse, and just left everyone else alone. He minded his own business, as the same with myself.
Q: How do you feel Secretariat will be remembered?
Otto Thorwarth: As the horse, I think Secretariat will be remembered (being in the horse business) as THE greatest horse of all time and I don’t think we’ll ever see another one like him.
Q: Since there is no horse like Secretariat, what did you think of the horses they got to play him? How well does the movie capture the ‘star’?
Otto Thorwarth: I thought they did a really good job of capturing Secretariat. They had a few hero horses that were really close to mimicking him. It was amazing how close to the real horse he was. As far as the way the scenes were shot and the way they shot him, it is almost identical.
Q: What do you remember of those years riding Secretariat? What is your best memory with him?
Ron Morel Turcotte: Secretariat was such a great horse, he was intelligent. There are so many good memories riding him. Overall there was a really great feeling being on that horse. I rode him from the time he first came to the race track to when he left racing.
Q: Do you feel there are enough safety precautions for Jockey’s today?
Otto Thorwarth: I think they are doing all that they really can. You are talking about a 110 pound human on top of a 200 pound horse. There is only so much you can do to protect yourself with gear.
Ron Morel Turcotte: There is way more than when I was riding. Now there are safety rails and flight jackets. They have much more protection. I don’t know what else they could get. You have to be really loose on the horse so you need a lot of flexibility.
Q: Did you know the first time you rode Secretariat, that he would be special?
Ron Morel Turcotte: From the time we came back from Florida, we started working him faster and he was very impressive. I thought he could be any kind of horse.
Q: How were you chosen for the part?
Otto Thorwarth: I answered a casting call which was sent out by Disney to all race tracks in North America. The director of publicity at the track I was at brought it to me and thought I fit the part.
Q: What was the greatest thing you learned from the real Secretariat?
Ron Morel Turcotte: I had ridden good horses but not as great as him. He was the greatest horse I rode and the fastest horse I ever saw run. As far as learning, I think I always thought that the duty of the jockey was to teach the horse how to run from the time he is young, not to fear any other horse, go beyond horses and come between horses, relax when I ask him to relax and pick-it-up when I ask him to. In all of that, Secretariat was my fastest learner. He was just beyond great.
Q: Do you think that you could have played this part if you hadn’t been a jockey?
Otto Thorwarth: I don’t think I could have done as good a job. It would be really difficult for an actor (even if they know how to ride a horse on a basic level) to have to partake in a real live race with other horses and jockeys alongside you.
Q: Why are there so many few horse movies?
Otto Thorwarth: That is hard for me to answer as I’m not a film director. But it’s so hard to capture this sport live and I’m guessing it’s really hard to duplicate.
Q: What is the name of the horse in the movie? Where did you found this look-a-like?
Otto Thorwarth: Trolley Boy was the main one they used for most of the close ups. There were four others and I remember one is called T but I don’t remember the names of the rest.
Q: Were you nervous about the notion of bringing this story to the big screen – and what eased your fears about the prospect of a Secretariat movie?
Ron Morel Turcotte: I was happy to see a SECRETARIAT movie come out. Like most of everybody in racing, I would like to see more races in the film, but we have to understand that it was Mrs. Chenery’s life story, so I was very happy with the outcome.
Q: How important is the bond between a jockey and his horse? Can you win if you don’t have a very fast horse but you are an experienced jockey?
Ron Morel Turcotte: The bond between the jockey and the horse is very important. You learn how the horse likes to run and his capacity so the jockey knows what to do during any circumstances during the race. We had to go into a race with 2-3 plans so the better we know our horse, the better we bond with our horse, the better the chance of winning a race such as the Triple Crown will be.
Q: How do you recall Secretariat? Was it a difficult horse to ride?
Ron Morel Turcotte: Secretariat was easy for me. He was heavy headed but that didn’t bother me because I had very strong hands and I could keep his head up. And especially as a baby, he was looking to that for support. I usually put my hands down, and he would relax and go into a coast and I would pick up his head, that was the signal to go on– to move faster. He was not a difficult horse to ride, he was very trackable. I could place him anywhere, go to the lead or come from behind. He was very intelligent and he was sure footed, and sure of himself, but yet very responsive to my command. Very kind. He just loved to run.
Q: Do you think this movie will bring new viewers to the racecourse?
Otto Thorwarth: Yes I think it should. Horse racing, at this time definitely, needs a little lift after the economic downfall. So yes, I certainly hope and think it will give a boost to the racing industry.
Q: When you look back, how do you explain winning the Belmont by so many lengths after Secretariat was known to mainly come from behind?
Ron Morel Turcotte: My intention was to hold back. I galloped him and worked him. All this preparation was done by me and I knew that he could go from start to finish at a certain rate of speed. I started to take him back, and then there was a hole on the fence so the other jockeys started to take their horses back. Sham started to take the lead and come into the inside. I decided to move alongside him, so I wouldn’t get trapped behind him. He was breathing wonderful under me, his heart beating good. Everything was fine with him, he was not straining himself, he was not fighting me and at that rate he was covering a lot of ground because I didn’t have a short hold on the reign. I figured he could go like that all the way. The time was not really a factor in my thinking when I was riding. Time is irrelevant, it’s how your horse is handling himself under you. Therefore, that is the reason I let him go on like that all the way.
Q: What was the toughest part of working on this film for you, shooting the racing sequences? or doing the dialogue scenes?
Otto Thorwarth: Definitely the racing. It was a lot harder than I imagined. They were very adamant about all the horses being in the same spots as they were back in the day with the same amount of length in between each horse. Especially when you have 12 horses on set, this was tough. We tried to duplicate that as best as we could but it was certainly a challenge. The acting part was surprisingly very easy and fun. I really enjoyed the acting part.
Q: I know that Secretariat set race records that still stand today (in the Kentucky Series and the Belmont Stakes). Why do his records still stand? Have they any connection with the fact that Secretariat had an extremely large heart?
Ron Morel Turcotte: He’s such a great horse. He set track records. The Derby record is still there, the Belmont is still there. I’m not too sure if he still holds his world record. He set many records, in many races. There were other races he could have set records in if I wanted to let him race in. He was a lot faster than normal horses. All I know is that he had a tremendous amount of air. In racetrack terms, we would say “he always has a lot of gas in the tank” and “he’s got a big motor.”
Q: Did you give Otto any piece of advice for his role in playing you?
Ron Morel Turcotte: I knew he had a script to follow but he wanted to get a feeling as to what I was like. My attitude. He didn’t ask me that many questions. We talked over dinner. And he was very observant. When he was filming, I had a chance to speak with him at the paddock. His feeling was to capture the way I talk and the way I act, if I was timid or confident.
Q: In the film, mention is made of a horse that was ridden so hard his heart burst, and after a loss Chenery threatens to fire her jockey. Could you talk about the pressures that a jockey faces?
Otto Thorwarth: Well the pressure that a jockey faces is to just win. Every time you go out there, if there are 10 horses and there are 10 jockeys who are set to win, so the pressure is equally weighted by all. The biggest pressure I guess is winning. As for the heart bursting, that doesn’t really have anything to do with a jockey pushing the horse it would really be a condition the horse had.
Q: In the movie, Diane Lane as Mrs. Tweedy said she was Secretariat’s voice. What do you feel that you and Lucien were to Secretariat?
Ron Morel Turcotte: I would see how Lucien was feeling. We discussed the horse’s progress. Every time, I would report back to Lucien how he was feeling under me and if I thought we should exercise him more, longer or for shorter distances. Lucien was responsible for corresponding with the exercise boy and to the feeders in the early morning. He had to get a report in regards to how Secretariat was feeling since he had the whole barn to correspond with. That was his responsibility.
Q: What inspired you and motivated you to become a jockey?
Otto Thorwarth: As a little kid I always wanted to be a professional athlete. When I was in high school, I was 5 ft. tall and 110 lbs. so I realized being a big football player wasn’t in my future so I decided to try being a disc jockey. I was always interested in horses but didn’t even try riding until after high school.
Q: Why do you feel there has not been a Triple Crown winner since 1978?
Otto Thorwarth: It is a very grueling process for a horse to go through. I think one of the biggest problems these days is that it is really hard to beat a horse that has the stamina to go 1.5 miles.
Q: The real Penny Chenery was reportedly on the set quite a bit during filming. Can you talk about the effect that her presence had during shooting?
Otto Thorwarth: For me it meant a lot because I wanted to hear her input. Every time I got to talk to her she was very pleased with my performance and knowledge of horses. I think because I started my profession from the bottom up (i.e., I started as a hot walker, then moved up to a groomer and then to jockey) and she was impressed with my knowledge of the business and of horses in general. We got along well.
Q: It’s been more than 30-years since we have had a Triple Crown winner. Many have come close but to lose it at Belmont. What is it about Belmont that has prevented many horses than won the first two, to then lose the last match? For those of us who are not familiar with Belmont, how challenging is that track?
Otto Thorwarth: It is not so much the track itself, it is the length of the race that is difficult (i.e., Derby is 1.75 and Belmont is 1.5 miles) and many horses can’t seem to do it these days. So once you compete in races, then qualifying races and then make it to Belmont, it is very difficult for the horse to maintain the same level of endurance and distance throughout. It is inevitable that the horse might slow down by the time it gets to Belmont. Sometimes there are fresh horses who only do Kentucky Derby and Belmont and they haven’t competed in as many races at let’s say other horses. So it really depends.
Q: What was it like when you were running with the real Secretariat during the Belmont?
Ron Morel Turcotte: He was moving like a tremendous machine. He was my best judgment and I thought I was doing the right thing. That pleased me, especially when I saw the timer in the infield stopped at 2-24 flat. It was an incredible feeling. Really unbelievable feeling. What we had accomplished was out of this world.
Q: Some sports have ebbed in popularity in recent years, like boxing and hockey. Horse racing endures. Why do you think people remain so fascinated by the sport?
Ron Morel Turcotte: I never miss a weekend race. I still watch all the big races and still travel throughout the US to watch the Belmont, the Derby… I still to this day go to the races. I think it’s because horses are so beautiful, and there is something about being outdoors, the lifestyle of horse racing, life on the farm, and just an overall sense of family atmosphere.
Q: How receptive were the cast/crew to suggestions you had during the shoot to improve the film’s authenticity?
Otto Thorwarth: They were very receptive. In fact Randall Wallace said to me the first day we were filming that if there was anything I saw that was inaccurate to what really happens in racing — to please speak up. There were a few instances where they did take my advice and made adjustments. They were very good about that.
Q: There are a number of horse-whisperer moments in “Secretariat” that show an uncanny ability to communicate. Can you talk about your connection with Secretariat?
Ron Morel Turcotte: The idea of grabbing hold of the mane of a horse is so if they stumble you don’t fall back. I always just ran my fingers through his mane. I always believed I had good communication with the horses that I rode or worked with. I also used to drive horses. I always had the uncanny ability to get along with horses. I never had problems with horses, and with that, they took to me well. Jockeys have to be really acute, you can tell if the horse is trying or not.
Q: As a jockey yourself, what did it mean for you to play Ronnie?
Otto Thorwarth: It was quite an honor to play Ron and be part of a movie made about the greatest horse of all time. Being a jockey myself, it was certainly true to my heart and such an amazing experience.
Q: You’re a jockey, but in this film you’re an actor playing a jockey. Were there times during the racing sequences when the jockey and the actor in you were at odds?
Otto Thorwarth: I don’t think I was ever at odds with either role. It was such a natural fit all around that it was pretty easy. If there was a moment where I felt the script didn’t accurately portray what happens in a real race, they actually fixed it. So there were no real odds.
Q: Is it true that real jockeys were used for all the racing sequences? Can you talk about how those races where choreographed to look so real and yet be “fixed” to replicate the results of several decades ago?
Otto Thorwarth: We had a bulletin board that they had color coded thumb tacks on where the horses needed to be positioned for us and how far away we needed to be from the horse in front of you. That gave us a visual of what to go for. In some cases we needed to do a few takes but after a few takes we got it. And in some scenes they would even ask me for my opinion on which of the five horses on-set would be good/best to replicate that scene. So it was very much a collaborative effort all around.
Q: You got to ride two of Chenery’s top horses…Riva Ridge and Secretariat? These were two quality horses, but what made Secretariat so different from Riva Ridge?
Ron Morel Turcotte: Secretariat, as I said was a total package. With Riva Ridge there was a lot of schooling. He ran full time before I rode him. When I rode him, and when I won with him, I told him he was the best 2 year old. I asked him to let me gallop him at the race track. In the meantime, I looked at his past races on film and saw exactly what he was capable of. I knew he was timid, I asked for one month of schooling, so he could refrain from running. I got the go ahead. I had two exercise boys to work with me. After a month of schooling, he won the rest of the year undefeated and became the second most winning horse for a two year old. He was named a two year old champion and he was also a Derby favorite. The only difference between Secretariat and Riva Ridge was that Riva could not run in the mud, but he sure could run. Riva Ridge I had to teach to be ‘sure footed’. His balance was not as great as Secretariat; hence he was not so great in mud.
Q: Do you think Secretariat would have won the Kentucky Derby if he would have won the Wood the night before?
Otto Thorwarth: The Wood was actually two weeks prior. I do, yes. They said he had a sore in his mouth before the Wood (abscessed tooth I believe) and so that prevented him from winning.
Q: Why do you think America was so captivated with Secretariat, both the racing fans and non-racing fans? Do you think that it was because of the Vietnam War, America’s loss to Russia in the Olympics? Did America need something that would inspire them and thus why Secretariat became so iconic back in the early ‘70s?
Ron Morel Turcotte: Secretariat was really a ham. He used to show off a lot. He loved big crowds. People were just amazed with such a lovely horse. Mrs. Chenery also captivated America.
Q: What advice did you have for Otto Thorwarth about how to play you, or how to interact with the horses that played Secretariat?
Ron Morel Turcotte: Otto was a rider, he was very experienced. I didn’t give him too much advice on how to handle a horse. It is hard for me to tell a rider what to do on a horse. It goes the same when trainers tell a jockey how to ride a horse. It wasn’t my place to do it. He also had his script to follow.
Q: Was it difficult working with the horses who played Secretariat during filming? Were there any accidents?
Otto Thorwarth: No accidents, just funny moments. The scene where he is working at the Belmont with the fog, they let me choose my own horse and so when we shot that scene for the first time I was going full speed and just as we approached the fog the horse slammed on his breaks sending me head first into the fog. I didn’t get hurt but I think the horse wanted me to see if it was okay first because after the rest of the takes he had no troubles running through the fog.
Q: Roger Ebert wrote in a glowing review that he thought the whole movie felt authentic. How did it look and feel from the perspective of a jockey who knows racing? That is, how accurately are the events or the behind-the-scenes stable and racetrack sequences that we see in the film?
Otto Thorwarth: Yes, I think the stable sequences were very accurate. They did an awesome job recreating Churchill Downs in Lafayette, Louisiana. It was amazing how close it was.
Q: You were very close to Secretariat, but what was your final time alone with him like and saying goodbye, did he know you two wouldn’t be together anymore?
Ron Morel Turcotte: It affected me a lot. I regret not going to the farm more often. The last time I rode him was in 1977. I called him and he came running. He knew me by the way I talked and walked. I used to grab the tip of his tongue and say ‘good morning’. When I called good morning, I always had to pat Secretariat first because he would become really jealous. Horses have feelings and they showed me their feelings. Many touching moments. I would always hold their head and give them a kiss. We’re prepared for that as jockeys. Jockey’s try not to get too attached. But sometimes, especially with Secretariat, I couldn’t help it.
Q: What can kids learn from the story of Secretariat?
Ron Morel Turcotte: I’ve spoken at quite a few schools and kids are fascinated with the movie. They want to know a lot about what was going on during my days of riding – life on the race track. The movie is bringing out a lot of people, especially in the Maritime (Provinces of Canada), because it’s something they have never seen before. They never dreamed it to be that way– that competitive — and they just love it. They sure do have a lot of questions. I’m always so pleased to speak with them.
Q: At the Preakness, Secretariat was clocked in at 1:53-2/5, a world record but there was a controversy with timing and was given a 1:54-2/5. Because of the controversy of the timing and that many believed Secretariat made a record time, does that ever bother you that they messed up the time and denied Secretariat a record time?
Ron Morel Turcotte: The daily racing forum clockers were in the proper place to clock the horse. They got the right time. 1:53-2/5. That was verified by NBC and other networks. They flagged the previous race that had the records. Yes, it did then, and it does now bother me. Its unjust. At Belmont, I let him run faster just to show the people in Maryland that he could break records whenever he wanted to.
Q: For the viewers who are not familiar with horse racing but enjoyed “Secretariat,” many of them may wonder if a horse like “Secretariat,” after winning the Triple Crown, could have such a successful win in a major race the following year?
Ron Morel Turcotte: I think Secretariat was really still a baby. He was just coming into his own in his last couple races. He was carrying himself better and was lighter on his feet. Carrying his head high. I think we really never saw the real Secretariat. Horses tend to blossom around 5-6 years old. That’s when they are more mature, stronger and better all around.
Otto Thorwarth: Of course it is possible. Although it takes a lot out of them, I’ve seen a lot of other horses who have come out of the Triple Crown and still won some other great races. It is possible.
Q: What is the biggest difference that you have seen with the sport? Horse racing then versus horse racing now?
Otto Thorwarth: One of the biggest differences is the amount of riders at a race. There are more racers in today’s day and age than there were back then. We are getting more racers from overseas (i.e., Spain) because of the financial incentives. So back in the day there were maybe 20 jockeys at a track and now you may have anywhere from 80-100 jockeys at a track. And the amount of pressure on the jockey with the increased purses has increased as well.
Ron Morel Turcotte: Horse racing then was a sport. Today it’s a big business. I think back then it catered to the public more than today. Back when I was racing, there were no sponsorships. I’d like to see people enjoy watching races at the racetrack.
Q: What did you both admire about Mrs. Tweedy from your own perspectives?
Ron Morel Turcotte: I had a good rapport with her. We never really had a disagreement. She was a lady that would give you a chance to be heard. We never argued. She was a fine owner for me to ride for. I always got along really great with Mrs. Chenery.
Otto Thorwarth: I just admired her confidence more than anything. As a person, just being so down to earth for someone who experienced the success that she did in a male dominated sport. She was a really genuine and strong hearted person. I can see how the horse won — horses really feed off the jockeys and get their direction from them — so I think the horse was really intuitive to her personality also and thus was successful.
Q: What do you think, was the secret behind Secretariat? Was it his heart?
Ron Morel Turcotte: The secret was a combination of a lot, it was his overall attitude, and it was the way he took to everything. He went to the racetrack when he was a baby and adapted quickly. He wasn’t afraid of anything. He was very bold. He had it all. He was the total package. He had the big bang, had the wind, health. He was the ‘Iron horse’.
Otto Thorwarth: Yes I think it really was that he had a very abnormally large heart and I think that was one of the biggest parts of being able to run and get more oxygen pumping. Obviously a horse still has to have the will to run, but I think the heart might have played a huge part in his success.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Otto Thorwarth: Thank you all for your questions today. I truly loved being in this film and I especially loved that it was a family film, having two kids myself. It was a very special time in my life. I loved working alongside all these great actors and film experts – John Malkovich, Diane Lane, Randall Wallace, etc. – I’m very proud of this film.
Ron Morel Turcotte: Secretariat was the greatest horse.
Secretariat is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
For more information on Secretariat, visit the official Secretariat web site.