Secretariat: Shooting with Horses

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"Secretariat," directed by Randall Wallace, follows the story of the horse that won the triple crown in 1973. The film, which stars Diane Lane and John Malkovich, is being released by Disney on October 8. 

There were between three and five Secretariats throughout the movie, and at one point, 36 horses were utilized at once to recreate a race. Even more impressive, many of these horses had never been in a movie before “Secretariat.” Some were discovered through an online casting call. Says animal wrangler Rusty Hendrickson, “Owners e-mailed their photographs and I reviewed them. I was looking for three main qualities in the horses used to portray Secretariat: looks, temperament and soundness. A calm attitude was particularly key, since multiple takes would clearly be involved. Racing experience was not a necessity, and they didn’t have to be thoroughbreds — Secretariat’s short back and round hip were reminiscent of American quarter horses. Trolley Boy came to the movie by way of a Secretariat Look-Alike contest, held at the Secretariat Festival in Paris, Kentucky.”


Meeting the horses


Once the horses were assembled, Hendrickson had about a month to get to know them and to figure out their various strengths as athletes and actors. In addition to Secretariat, Hendrickson had to find suitable Shams, the great horse who ran second to Secretariat in the Triple Crown contest. And he had to have multiple horses who could serve the various Secretariat needs throughout the shooting day.


“We basically had two principal-camera horses,” says Hendrickson. “One portrayed Secretariat as a 2-year-old, and one that was a little bigger portrayed him as an older horse. We didn’t race them a lot; we kept them quiet, using them on the tracks individually so they wouldn’t get competitive and fractious. We had to have about four doubles for all the racing footage since they couldn’t all run all day. Every day we’d sort of handicap the horses to figure out who was the slowest Secretariat that day or the stronger Sham. If the sequence needed Sham to be in front of Secretariat, then we would match horses accordingly. And we of course had days where we needed stronger Secretariats and weaker Shams.”


The real Secretariat


The real Secretariat had a bright-red coat, three distinctive white socks and a white stripe and star on his face. His doppelgangers shared his chestnut coloring, but to replicate the rest, Lisa Brown, an experienced wrangler, painstakingly painted his markings on all the horses early in the morning, before cameras rolled. Her easy-going manner allayed any trepidation the horses might have had about their makeup ritual.