In 2005, jockey Otto Thorwarth had become disenchanted with race riding, particularly the battle against his weight. He returned to his hometown of Hot Springs, Ark., but struggled to close out his jockey career because he believed he eventually would pair with a champion mount. Then, he says he received a directive from above.
“I had gotten serious about my walk with God,” Thorwarth said. “I was praying one day and asking for direction. I felt like He wanted me to go back to the track. That made zero sense to me because I had gotten so sour. I fought it for six months but went back to the races in Indiana.”
Thorwarth soon began winning at a steady clip and was still seeking that elusive champion when Thoroughbred industry publicist John Engelhardt encouraged him to try out for a part in the 2010 Disney movie “Secretariat.” Thorwarth was reluctant, but his wife Brandi convinced him to go. Driving to the Lexington audition, he told a friend via phone where he was headed.
“It clicked for him,” Thorwarth said. “He said, 'Didn't you get a prophecy about riding a champion?' Then I realized—this is it. As soon as I got the role, I figured I was done being a jockey.”
Thorwarth played in scenes filmed at Keeneland and Churchill Downs and in Lafayette, La. He had enough speaking lines to earn Screen Actors Guild membership.
“One of the most challenging scenes was when I was supposed to ride 'Secretariat' through (machine-made) fog,” he said in a 2016 interview. “The cameraman was standing on the track and I couldn't see him, so I took my boot and drew a line so I knew what path to ride through. I took the horse through the fog a few times slow and when it was time to shoot the scene, we started through and the horse stopped and I went flying through the fog on my own. But we finally got the shot.”
Satisfied he had fulfilled the prophecy, Thorwarth returned to the track as an exercise rider. After four years away from competitive riding, Thorwarth made a brief comeback in 2014 before closing that chapter as the winner of 1,378 races. He continued as an exercise rider until February when he turned his full attention to ministry.
Thorwarth's size and location were the catalysts for his professions.
“Growing up I dreamed of becoming a professional athlete,” he said. “When I started high school, I started following the races and I found out there were pint-sized athletes there and I realized my dreams could come true. I had never ridden until I graduated high school. I worked at Oaklawn as a groom and hotwalker for Frank Brothers and he sent me to a farm in Texas to learn to ride. A few years later I came back to the track and galloped for another year.”
Thorwarth debuted on Oaklawn's opening-day Jan. 24, 1992 with a victory aboard Color Me Softly for trainer Hoss Inman. He estimates there was a hometown crowd of 50 people in the winner's circle.
Competing daily against such Oaklawn regulars as subsequent Hall of Famers Pat Day and Calvin Borel and 6,388-time winner Larry Snyder was particularly special to Thorwarth. One of his fondest memories was winning five races on March 28, 1993.
His triumphs and challenges would serve him well in his second calling, steeped in serving those who tend to the Thoroughbreds. He typically spends his morning strolling through the Indiana Grand barn area and watching horses train. Then he goes to his office until noon to field requests for assistance such as taking people to doctors' appointments and handling their paperwork. He returns to give a daily devotion in the jockeys' quarters and stays for the racing program to offer assistance if needed. Throughout the year, he is available for speaking engagements at conferences, churches and tracks.
Thorwarth resides in Indiana with Brandi (to whom he has been married 20 years), their two daughters and a foster son. With no racing at Indiana Grand until spring, he will spend time furthering his education at Lifestyle Christianity University near Fort Worth, Texas.
“I love the ministry and helping people grow,” he said. “What is neat is that I can do it at the track because I have worked on the different levels — hotwalker, groom, exercise rider and jockey. I know what people on the backside go through. I have lived in tack rooms and from paycheck to paycheck. It is easy for me to identify with people when they come to me with a problem. I understand where they are at because I have been there.”
Otto Thorwarth can be reached at [email protected]
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