The Kentucky Theatre will screen the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday night as part of Breeders’ Cup Festival activities. Quite a bit of the movie was filmed here in Central Kentucky, including the reenactment of the historic 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, which brought more than 4,000 extras out to Keeneland on a cold, November Sunday afternoon. Here’s our story from that shoot on November 17, 2002:
In L.A., the crowd would have been gone.
“No one would have shown up in the cold,” to be an unpaid extra, Seabiscuit executive producer Allison Thomas said yesterday.
But Lexington isn’t Los Angeles.
“These people are amazing. Kentucky went all out for this,” crowd coordinator Cash Oshman said yesterday as he surveyed the scene at Keeneland.
“You can tell how much love they have for their state and for horse racing.”
More than 4,200 people turned out to be unpaid extras in one of the movie’s climactic scenes, a match race between underdog Seabiscuit and Triple Crown winner War Admiral.
The race actually took place at Maryland’s Pimlico Race Course Nov. 1, 1938. To portray it, Keeneland was redone to look like Pimlico, complete with the Maryland flag snapping over the old-fashioned tote board.
The movie is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling non-fiction book.
Though none of the book takes place in Kentucky, the moviemakers came here for the Bluegrass’ natural beauty and Keeneland’s retro feel. After two weeks of filming which ends today, Thomas says they made the right call.
“I’m now the No. 1 tourism booster for Lexington, Ky.” she said. “This is the most beautiful state. Everyone is so friendly, and the fall color is gorgeous. I’m going home to asphalt and traffic and billboards and I’m kind of sad to leave.”
Despite the rain and cold late in the shoot, and thunderstorms which swept through Keeneland last Sunday, Thomas said she felt like “the weather Gods smiled on us.
“There was a threat of tornadoes and that never happened, and they were predicting rain today and it turned out it was just cold.”
Mary Jo Billitter of Lexington mused that people in Lexington will brave the elements for UK football games, concert tickets and primo seats at UK basketball’s Midnight Madness. Why not do it for a major Hollywood movie?
“Nothing much happens here, so this was a chance to be part of something pretty big,” 17-year-old Todd Hartlage of Lexington said, explaining why he came out and stayed.
Hartlage, like many of the extras, was wearing an ensemble, with flowery bow tie, that he had assembled from his father’s and grandfather’s closets.
Billitter had a thick mouton fur that her mother had bought at Seligman’s Furs of Louisville in the 1930s.
Some people ended up sporting two coats after they got checked out by wardrobe people.
Two women went through the crowd checking people’s looks. Most frequently, they were asking women with their hair down to put it up under free prop fedoras, one of the perks of being an unpaid extra. They were also scoping out bright colors and clothing that wasn’t appropriate to the period. People with non-period coats were given overcoats from two racks of coats.
“We’re trying to keep a muted, dark palate and eliminate bright colors that might distract the audience,” said a wardrobe woman, who declined to give her name. “We did not have the time or facilities to do period appropriate makeup and hair for women, so we just had to turn them into men.”
It may have been a disappointment to some people who got gussied up like it was Derby Day, but the wardrobe woman said that most people understood.
After being cleared by wardrobe, extras went to the set where they repeatedly cheered the horses as they raced to the finish line.
Jockeys Chris McCarron and Gary Stevens raced their horses down the stretch (McCarron on War Admiral, Stevens on Seabiscuit) toward the finish line, Seabiscuit the preordained winner.
“To see McCarron and Stevens on these beautiful horses was great,” said Sue Woodford, 61, of Paris. “We were right on the rail for the last scene.”
Unlike regular Keeneland meets, spectators stood on the turf track and swarmed the rail as the horses finished.
“That was pretty wild,” said Kim Temple, 38, of Dayton. “If you read the description in the book, it felt like you were right there.”
In between takes, extras had free snacks and coffee to try to keep warm.
Dante, an actor and stand up comic, conducted raffles and directed traffic from his cold perch on a tower at the finish line.
“I usually say this and don’t mean it, but this time I mean it, you are the best crowd ever on a movie set,” Dante told the extras, drawing a big cheer.
In one contest, Dante threw out a challenge to name all 50 states quicker than him. His time of 27 seconds was bested by Andrew Campbell, 28, who rattled off all 50 in 18 seconds, sounding like a Keeneland auctioneer.
Most of the unpaid extras had signed up at a Web site called beinamovie.com.
“I checked my e-mail this morning and we had 19 messages from Seabiscuit,” said Larry Dyer, who was at Keeneland with his wife, Nadine. “They communicate better than AT&T.”
For some, it was a second encounter with the movie.
Woodford was a paid extra earlier, even though she won’t be seen on film. She was part of the choir at the First Presbyterian Church in Paris, where Seabiscuit filmed early in the month.
“They only used our voices,” she said. “We got paid, and we didn’t even make it to the cutting room floor.”