Thorwarth, 40, has been riding at mainly small circuits in the Midwest since 1991. He's accumulated close to 1,500 wins, but has never ridden in the Kentucky Derby, before or after the prophecy. Who knew? Thorwarth's champion turned out to be a movie version of a horse who's been dead since 1989. Playing the part of Ron Turcotte, in the first acting he's ever done, he rode the horses who played Secretariat in the new movie of the same name. Now Otto Thorwarth is an ex-jockey, waiting by the phone for his next screen role.
Thorwarth took a drama course during his senior year at the school, not because of any interest in acting, but because the class was one of the few available during a vacant time block on his schedule. "I didn't do anything in any of the plays they put on," he said. "The only thing I had anything to do with in those plays was handle some of the props."
Late in 2008, while riding at River Downs in Ohio, Thorwarth was approached at the end of a card by John Engelhardt, the PR man at the track. Disney was scouring the country for a real-life jockey to play Turcotte, and had sent scripts of "Secretariat" around.
"Did you ever do any acting?" Engelhardt asked.
"Only when I went before the stewards," Thorwarth said.
Thorwarth went home and read the script, especially the Turcotte part. "How hard could it be to play a jockey?" he said to his wife Brandi. He called a casting person in California. She told him to be at a hotel in Lexington, Ky., the next morning to read for the part.
"The job description was for a white male, jockey size," Thorwarth said. "I figured there wouldn't be that much competition, because so many of the riders nowadays are Hispanic. But when I got there, there were 10 or 15 other jockeys. I knew most of them."
Turcotte's opening scene in the movie is meeting Penny Chenery after he's been badly injured, and assuring the owner of Secretariat that he's well enough to take over the mount. Off the horse, it's the most the Turcotte character has to do in the entire film, which is not to say he's doesn't have a choice line or two the rest of the way. In another scene, at the Belmont Ball the night before the Belmont Stakes, there is some banter about a good-looking girl Turcotte's with, and the jockey says: "I told her I was taller when I stood on my wallet."
At the audition in Lexington, Thorwarth was allowed to use the script to read the lines from Turcotte's meeting with Chenery. On his way back home, he took a call from Disney that said he had survived the first round. Later there was another call, to be at the same hotel to read for the Jimmy Gaffney part. Gaffney was Secretariat's exercise rider. Thorwarth was crestfallen. He knew that the Gaffney part, in toto, was one line--five words. But he went anyhow.
"Do you know your lines?" the casting director said at the second audition.
"Sure, there is only one," Thorwarth said.
"What do you mean?" she said. "I'm talking about the Turcotte lines."
"But I was told I was here for the Gaffney part."
"There's been a mistake. You're still supposed to be reading for the Turcotte part."
"I wasn't ready for that. Can you give me a half-hour?"
They did, and Thorwarth came back and read. He was looking at the clock all the while. He was due at Turfway Park, an hour away, to ride that afternoon. Before he left Lexington, he was told that Disney would be contacting him the next day. That call was to set up a lunch with Randall Wallace, director of the picture.
"I guess I had a pre-conceived notion of what a Hollywood director would be like," Thorwarth said. "Boy, was I wrong. He was one of the most down-to-earth guys you could ever imagine."
Thorwarth met with Wallace on a Friday. On Monday, he was offered the part. He had to go in to see the Turfway Park stewards, and this time it was no act. He had to ask their permission to take off his scheduled mounts for the next three days. Filming for "Secretariat" was going to start in a matter of days.
After filming ended, Wallace told Thorwarth that there might be more jobs for him down the road. Otto and Brandi, who's an occupational therapist, decided to move back to Hot Springs with their daughters, ages 3 and 9. She could work while he worked as a lay pastor for the church and hoped for more Hollywood jobs after people saw him in "Secretariat."
Last month, Arlington Park called him to ride in a benefit race for the disabled jockeys' fund. He was to be a replacement for Jean Cruguet, who rode Seattle Slew, another Triple Crown champion. Cruguet is a non-speaking extra in the film.
"I hadn't ridden in nine months, and I thought I might be asking for it," Thorwarth said. "But then I thought, Cruguet was going to ride in that race, and he's well up there in years. If he was going to ride, why couldn't I? My horse was a fast-closing fourth and didn't get beat by much. If the wire hadn't come up, we might have won the race."
Thorwarth was born in 1970, three years before Secretariat swept the Triple Crown. I asked him when he first heard of Secretariat.
"It must have been when I was in the 11th grade," he said. "There was a lot of talk around Hot Springs about Easy Goer coming up. They said he was going to be the next Secretariat. So I asked around, and they told me who Secretariat was."
Many years later, in front of a few cameras, he got the chance to ride Secretariat, if only by proxy. Rightfully, Otto Thorwarth counts it as the prophecy that came true.