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SECRETARIAT

On Location
Behind-the-Scenes Team Hits Its Stride

"Secretariat” was filmed in three different cities: Lexington and Louisville, Ky., and Lafayette, La. All three towns, at various points, stood in for Virginia, New York and Denver and collectively became the Aqueduct, Saratoga, Pimlico and Belmont racetracks. Only Churchill Downs, home of the famed Kentucky Derby, played itself.

THE COIN TOSS

Filmmakers shot the coin-toss scenes at Spindletop Hall, in Lexington, Ky. A sprawling, 40-room mansion built in the classical style in 1935, it was a technological marvel with a phalanx of enormous pillars, heavy bronze doors and hidden baffles and hollows in its curved walls, all to accommodate a massive Kimball pipe organ. The scene took place in the library, which features mahogany walls, a marble Tudor mantel and massive crystal chandeliers. A giant camera captured the scene from above, suspended on a jerry-rigged collection of ladders, apple boxes and trusses.

THE RACE IS ON

The company spent a week at Churchill Downs recreating pieces of Secretariat's run for the roses, following a week at Keeneland racetrack, where, among other things, the cast and crew reenacted Secretariat's amazing Belmont win. For director Randall Wallace, filming at the storied racetrack Keeneland and the legendary Churchill Downs was key. "It was impossible for me to think of shooting this film without being in Kentucky,” he says. "We certainly availed ourselves of everything Keeneland had to offer, including its amazing collection of documents and records on horse racing and Secretariat. But to go to Churchill Downs — I'd been there once and it was a magical experience, and I knew we had to have it for this film.”

Of course, Churchill Downs is not exactly as it was in the early 1970s. But the famous spires still inspire, and production designer Tom Sanders, the art department and the visual effects team managed to take the paddocks and the track back in time. It was an amazing experience for the entire cast and crew, but for Otto Thorwarth, it was particularly enlightening.

"I was very familiar with Keeneland and Churchill. I rode at both places for the first 6 years of my career, twice a year. But I definitely got a different perspective when we filmed there. For all my time at Churchill, I never set foot inside the grandstand. But when we shot there, I saw parts of Churchill Downs I'd never seen before. When we were shooting crowd scenes, I walked up and watched and took a tour of the grandstands, went through all the levels. I had never been off the first floor, really,” Thorwarth said.

In fact, those crowd scenes in Kentucky, perhaps the nation's capitol of horse aficionados, attracted as many as 800 extras, all eager to support Secretariat some 20 years after his death. Their enthusiasm touched and inspired Wallace, who routinely invited them into the filmmaking process. "We had budgeted for large CGI shots in Kentucky, but so many people turned out to be in the crowd, we were able to do much of that in camera,” says the director. "I'm from Tennessee, so I felt a real connection to them. I told the extras in Kentucky that we were probably all cousins. I asked them to sing ‘My Old Kentucky Home,' which I had not imagined would be in the movie, but they sang it with heart. They became a living part of the shot. They brought so much excitement to the race. Those people made the stadium rock with energy.”

SUMMONING THE SEVENTIES

The film's 1970s time period made for a colorful bunch of extras—neon greens and oranges, peasant and mini skirts, plaids and polka dots, bell bottoms, leather vests and assorted hats and shaggy hairstyles. But because of the rarefied settings—Churchill Downs, for instance—the flamboyant commingled with the more streamlined, classic look of the moneyed horse set. For Diane Lane's wardrobe, costume designer Julie Weiss chose a palette and silhouette that were more reminiscent of Brooks Brothers and Jackie Onassis. Weiss says the wardrobe instantly transformed Lane. "It is very rare that you watch somebody become the character during a fitting,” says Weiss. "And the camera loves her.”

As much as possible, costume designer Mike Boyd based the rest of the cast's wardrobe on the attire their characters actually wore. For instance, Miss Ham favored a distinctive blue and white dress—Secretariat's colors! "We looked at as many original photos as possible and tried to replicate what everyone wore,” Boyd says. "We noticed that Miss Ham wore the same dress for all three races in the Triple Crown. She must have been superstitious, like many athletes with a lucky charm they rely on. I pointed this out to Randy and to Margo and they both wanted to go with that dress. In this case, truth was stranger than fiction.”

VICTORY

Another authentic piece of Secretariat history also graced the movie — the actual silver Triple Crown trophy, on loan from the Kentucky Derby Museum. "The trophy we used in the scene when Secretariat wins Belmont and thus the Triple Crown was the actual one that will be given to the next Triple Crown winner,” says prop master Dave Gulick. "It was produced in 1978, after Affirmed won the Triple Crown, in preparation for the next winner. Unfortunately, there hasn't been one since then. Cartier made the silver trophy, and it literally had to be handled with gloves. Even though it was 31 years old, it was brand-new.”

The production made use of the seemingly endless tiers of seats above the tracks at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, primarily to film the scenes of audience reactions to wide shots of the races. This, of course, included the wild response to Secretariat's Belmont win. In 1973, Chenery, as can still be seen on YouTube, spontaneously threw her arms up in a joyous victory gesture, and Diane Lane recreated the moment — in front of one very important member of the crowd: Filmmakers had called on Chenery herself to be part of the iconic scene. Though 87 at the time, she jumped at the opportunity. And it tickled her to no end to watch "herself” respond to the horse's triumph. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world,” she says.

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