Secretariat director Randall Wallace came to the Kentucky Derby in 2006, the year Barbaro won, and there was one moment that stayed with him.
"When we sang My Old Kentucky Home, it was heartfelt, it was authentic," Wallace said. "This movie I wanted to be heartfelt and authentic, and when we began to talk about where to make the movie ... I was insistent that we had to get back to Kentucky because I wanted to feel that same heartfelt sincerity. I wanted to have that on film."
Wallace and his crew were in Kentucky last fall, getting that feel for Secretariat, the new movie about the 1973 Triple Crown winner and his tenacious owner, Penny Chenery. The film is scheduled to open nationwide Oct. 8, but Lexington gets an early look Sunday night, with a red-carpet premiere at The Kentucky Theatre. The event will be attended by the film's star, Diane Lane, who plays Chenery, and other film and Thoroughbred racing celebrities.
It brings Wallace back to Lexington, where he filmed several crucial scenes in the movie, including Secretariat's Triple Crown-clinching run in the Belmont, which was shot at Keeneland, and the coin flip to determine Secretariat's ownership, which was staged at Spindletop Hall with several other scenes.
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"Keeneland was a wonderful double for Belmont Park," Wallace said. "And beyond that, Keeneland was a glorious facility right in the heart of that wonderful Bluegrass country. We found a spot for church. We found a beautiful place for a horse club and an ideal spot for the coin toss. All of that made Keeneland an ideal stand-in. It gave us beauty we probably wouldn't have gotten, even if we had gone to Belmont Park."
This is Keeneland's third close-up in the past decade. It stood in for Pimlico Race Track in Seabiscuit (2003) and was the Breeders' Cup venue in Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005).
"It's a beautiful location, and it's extremely well run," Wallace said. He has especially fond memories of longtime Keeneland lobbyist Judy Taylor, who acted as a liaison between the track and Wallace's team. "The first day we were out on the scout, she brought to the whole crew — here we are, ragged, exhausted, working-20-hours-a-day film scout people walking around, looking for the perfect place to shoot our movie — chocolate chip bourbon cookies, which sent me directly to heaven.
"She could tell us what we could do and couldn't do. There were beautiful stables we could use, the track itself was beautiful, the grandstands were perfectly kept, and it was easy for us to do it."
Wallace said Keeneland's professionalism also made it cost-efficient to film there, a big plus considering Secretariat did not have an Avatar-size budget.
At the film's other Kentucky track, Churchill Downs, Wallace said, the crew had to do some careful shooting and digital alterations so it would look like it did in the 1970s, decades before the track's recent renovation. (One of the movie posters for Secretariat has caused a stir because it shows the silhouette of Churchill after its 21st-century renovation.)
"At Churchill, they were even willing to repaint to some of the colors they used in '73, and they've left some of that," Wallace says. "The Churchill people really loved that we were there and helped in every way possible."
The essential element, though, was the spirit that Wallace found in Kentucky.
"The passion people had and the enthusiasm they brought is visible on the screen," Wallace says. "It's mainly in the horse-racing scenes and the crowd shots. We got something from the Kentucky people that just lights up on the screen."