Those who gathered in New York to watch the stars arriving at the world premiere of the film War Horse last week could have been forgiven for feeling that someone was missing from the glittering event.
Big names aplenty trotted up the red carpet into the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, spruced up in their evening attire and posing for photographers.
Among them was director Steven Spielberg along with Midnight In Paris actor Tom Hiddleston and newcomer Jeremy Irvine.
There were further camera flashes for Emily Watson, not to mention War Horse’s British author, Michael Morpurgo.
But the biggest star of the eagerly anticipated World War I saga was nowhere to be seen.
For while the film’s human stars were lapping up the applause of the crowds, Finder, an 11-year-old bay thoroughbred gelding, was thousands of miles away on a Californian ranch, preparing to bed down for the night, unaware of all the adulation his stunning cinematic scenes have attracted.
War Horse, on release in the UK from January 13, tells the story of Joey, a horse sold to the British cavalry and shipped to France during the 1914-1918 war.
He serves in both the British and German armies, while his devoted young owner embarks on a mission to bring him home.
Morpurgo’s original 1982 novel was the result of painstaking historical research and had already been transformed into an award-winning theatre production in Britain in 2007 when Spielberg decided to bring the heart-rending story to the big screen.
Not since Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty was turned into a film has a horse played such a pivotal role in the movies.
Spielberg’s film was shot over more than five months in Devon last year and Finder — a veteran of major film and TV roles — appears as Joey, the war horse of the title, in many of its most dramatic scenes.
He may have been left off the guest list for the premiere, but the Mail tracked Finder down to his spacious stables — not in Hollywood, but by the side of a motorway in Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles.
Confusingly, Finder’s glossy bay coat is now black, as his trainer has dyed him with harmless organic Japanese hair dye for his latest role in the American TV crime series CSI Miami.
The white socks painted on for War Horse have long since faded. But strutting around his enclosure, Finder is every bit the Hollywood star.
He stands at 15 hands and two inches, and while he may not have had much success previously as a racehorse, he’s built up a formidable reputation as the horse the stars want to work with.
His first major film was the 2003 horseracing drama Seabiscuit, in which he starred alongside Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges as the real-life undersized racehorse who became a media sensation towards the end of the Great Depression.
At the time, Finder was only three, but he went on to work on the Legend Of Zorro in 2005 with Antonio Banderas, Did You Hear About The Morgans with Hugh Grant in 2009 and Unstoppable with Denzil Washington in 2010.
There have also been parts in various U.S. TV shows and, since War Horse finished filming, he has been working on the soon-to-be released Snow White movie starring Julia Roberts.
So it is hardly surprising that when War Horse producers were casting around for the perfect Joey, they settled their sights on Finder.
The man behind his success is Hollywood horse whisperer Bobby Lovgren, a trainer who comes from a famous equestrian family in South Africa. Lovgren keeps his techniques close to his chest, but with just the merest of gestures he is able to get Finder to rear up on his hind legs, his hooves flailing as if against some unseen threat.
It is a dramatic routine the spirited horse performed to perfection in one of the signature moments of War Horse, when his character, Joey, is separated from his devoted young master and handed over as a cavalry steed.
But Finder is no one-trick pony. He is equally able to lie down in the mud, as gentle as a lamb, while Lovgren sits by his side. He even stands in as a birthing mare in the film.
And while 14 horses were used to portray Joey as he grows from foal to adult, it is Finder who is seen lying on the ground, apparently tangled up in barbed wire in no-man’s land, in the heartbreaking climax to the film.
Spielberg has admitted that directing his animal actors was an unprecedented challenge for him.
‘The horses didn’t listen to me very often,’ he said recently.
‘Bobby Lovgren, our horse whisperer, was responsible for getting the performance out of Joey.’
The secret to Lovgren’s success is the closeness he shares with Finder.
The pair met on the set of Seabiscuit where Lovgren was working as a trainer. When filming finished, he bought Finder from the producers.
Thanks to years of training, the horse responds to his slightest move.
Lovgren, however, rarely uses his voice — in case it is recorded while the cameras are rolling.
He will not give away the exact secret of his success, but he talks about ‘repetition and confidence’, and adds: ‘It is very subtle. Ninety-nine per cent of the time you don’t even see me doing anything and the horse reacts.
‘The only way I can explain it is that it’s like having a dance partner. He duplicates what I do. If I go to the right, he goes to the right, if I go left, he goes left.’
Lovgren uses his whip as a guide — it never makes contact with the horse, but acts merely as an extension to his arm.
‘I really teach the horse to have confidence in me and his surroundings,’ he explains.
‘Horses are herd animals. In nature, there is one dominant horse that tells the others what to do and where to go. If that horse runs away, they all run away.
‘I am replacing that horse and I tell Finder what to do. The first thing I teach is confidence. I don’t do treats. In nature, horses don’t give each other treats. I need him to focus on me and then when he does his job I leave him alone.’
Lovgren, who oversaw all the animal performances in War Horse, came to the U.S. to work under the mentorship of legendary trainer Glenn Randall, who ‘choreographed’ the famous chariot race in the 1959 Charlton Heston classic Ben-Hur and worked with Roy Rogers’s horse, Trigger.
He says that horses like Finder cannot be made to obey.
‘They are either good students or they are not,’ says Lovgren.
‘Finder had a personality that he brought to the table. He has a good pedigree, but he wasn’t very good at being a racehorse. It wasn’t that he wasn’t fast enough — he just didn’t like it.
‘And he’s not a quiet type of horse. He needs an experienced rider.’
In scenes where the horse runs free, Lovgren can send him from one spot in a field to another with just a nod of his head or a flick of his wrist and the horse will hit his mark every time.
Lovgren adds: ‘Steven Spielberg had such a great vision for this movie and he wanted these big, sweeping scenes that showed the beauty of the landscape. So I had to think: “Where should I stand to get out of the shot?” I’d be hiding behind rocks and trees.’
More than anything, however, it is Finder’s charisma that makes him a director’s favourite.
‘He doesn’t behave like a trained horse,’ says Lovgren.
‘He is like a wild child at times. He’s a handful, but he just loves being in front of the camera. Just about the only thing he’s not very good at is standing still. He is Mr Hollywood himself.’
Indeed, on the film sets in London and the village of Meavy on Dartmoor, Finder happily submitted himself to a team of 26 make-up artists who had the task of ensuring all the different Joeys matched up.
He was left his natural bay colour, while the other horses were carefully selected to look the same as him. For some scenes, they had to be transformed into war-weary, ill-fed steeds trudging through the muddy misery of the trenches.
Finder, along with several other horses, was covered in shaving cream to make his hair stick up and look bedraggled. His ribs were outlined with dark make-up to give the impression that his bones were sticking out.
‘That took quite some make-up at times,’ says Lovgren. ‘It was all part of the movie magic. He loves all that. He’s a real ham.’
Quite rightly, those who work with animals on films and teach them to perform on command are subject to stringent animal-welfare checks.
Lovgren refuses to work on any film where the treatment of the animals isn’t carefully monitored independently, and members of the American Humane Society were on the set of War Horse to ensure all the animals were well looked after.
And while for most films, actors make only a token appearance to see their equine ‘co-stars’ before shooting begins, Spielberg insisted that all the stars in War Horse, including Jeremy Irvine, twice-Oscar-nominated Emily Watson and Harry Potter star David Thewlis spent a day at the stables.
‘Jeremy had never ridden, but he did great, and Steven Spielberg was wonderful to work with,’ says Lovgren. ‘He had a very clear vision of what he wanted with the horses and that made it much easier.
‘It was such a wonderful team effort. There were so many touching scenes. It was very emotional.’
There is already talk about Oscars for the film and its stars. Some critics have even described War Horse as Spielberg’s greatest movie yet.
None of this will mean anything to Finder, of course.
Until someone invents an equine acting award, Lovgren insists he’ll be happy enough with an extra portion of grain and a couple of extra carrots.
By DAVID GARDNER, in Acton, California
Last updated at 12:14 AM on 17th December 2011