02/06/2013 3:36PM

Jay Hovdey: The man behind the Budweiser Clydesdale Super Bowl ad


As far as this year’s most popular Super Bowl ad is concerned, you could play Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham doing “Landslide” over a hobo cleaning his fingernails with a toothpick and most people – as long as they harbor some inner emotional life – would get teary-eyed. It’s that kind of tune.

Still, when you stir in a baby Clydesdale, an actor channeling Heath Ledger from “Brokeback Mountain” and a grown-up version of that same foal chasing down his long-lost pal through the streets of Chicago (actually West L.A.), well, dang . . . instant classic. And gimme another cold one.

The animal gang would argue that the beer commercial would have worked just as well with a cat, a dog, a budgie, or a pot-bellied pig. Not so. Even as an abstract concept in a highly digitalized culture the horse continues to hold a place akin to mythic, perhaps even more so now that such a small slice of the American public actually reaches out and touches one of the critters on a regular basis.

A horse on the scale of a Budweiser Clydesdale is especially effective, though not necessary, in conveying the odd contradictions of the horse-human relationship. Size matters, and there is every reason to assume that at any point a horse of any breed could reduce a human to rubble if that horse was so inclined. And yet these physically dense, emotionally unpredictable evolutionary throwbacks can become so domesticated that they will walk through a racetrack crowd without bother, give children rides in the park, or perform on cue for the camera.

Nostalgia buffs will recall that for nine years, throughout most of the 1980’s, a team of Budweiser Clydesdales pulled the Santa Anita starting gate into place for every race on every racing day, taking time off only when the track was especially muddy and deep. They were stabled along a hallway hard by the racing offices, and it was impossible to wander past them without stopping to stare.

Of the many interesting people I have met courtesy of my wife, Julie Krone (name drop alert: Yogi Berra, Julie Foudy, Springsteen!), none have been as fascinating as Tommie Turvey and his wife, Chantal. This was last summer, when the Turveys were in the Del Mar area for a charity event and staying at the horse farm of local Thoroughbred owner and breeder Kim Carville. Turvey bills himself as an “Equine Extremist” who has assembled a cast of four-legged characters capable of just about anything from high-speed acrobatics to low-brow comedy.

Like Gene Hackman on film or DiMaggio in center field, Turvey leaches the technique from his craft and leaves only wonderment, making it appear as if nature intended horses to lie on their backs, buck and rear on cue, perch on tiny boxes, jump through fire, and chase people around an arena, pin them to the ground and give them a smooch.

It was Turvey’s reputation as a trainer who could teach horses to hit their marks in movies, TV, and live shows that brought him together with director Jake Scott and a small herd of Clydesdales for the Budweiser commercial. (Among Turvey’s credits – in both training and stunt work – have been “The Walking Dead,” “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises” and HBO’s “John Adams.”) Casting for the commerical required a newborn foal, a mischievous weanling and a mature work horse who would join the famed Budweiser team pulling the beer wagon under harness.

“I was supplied with eight horses,” Turvey said this week, still awash in praise for his role in the ad. “There were four older horses, including one who was 8, the oldest, who was fully mature. That’s the horse you see at the end of the commercial, and he couldn’t get any bigger. Then there were four who were eight and nine months old. Not that any one of them was smarter or harder to train. I just took the ones I could teach quicker and go on with it.”

Clydesdales, named for Scotland’s River Clyde, can grow as tall as six feet at the withers and weigh upwards of a ton. Still, a horse is a horse, of course, especially when it comes to training.

“Clydesdales are a lot bigger to deal with, obviously, so getting stepped on hurts a lot worse,” Turvey said. “But really, they are just part of the equine breed. A horse like any other.”

To watch Turvey in action is to understand at least a little bit of how he got the various Clydesdales to perform. In his live acts he is so utterly integrated with the physical animal that it is sometimes hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. Both are dependent upon mutual trust.

“I’ve never worked with racehorses because I’m an entertainer, and my horses have to entertain or do stunts,” Turvey said. “We don’t do any competition.”

The Turveys make their home and headquarters at Liberty Horse Ranch in Brooksville, Fla., about halfway between Ocala and Tampa, but they find themselves on the road doing shows upwards of 40 weeks a year. Last summer, a few weeks after their side trip for charity to Del Mar, they traveled to the village of Newtown, Conn., to appear as part of the community’s family friendly benefit festivities for the 2nd Governor’s Horse Guard. Yes, that Newtown.

“What can I say,” Turvey said. “Just thinking we were there, after what happened later, is awful tough. We did a lot of publicity in the area, so not only did we do a show, but I also went around town quite a bit and met a lot of people. I’m sure there were a lot of kids from Sandy Hook Elementary we met. Kids who might have seen the show.”

Later this month the Turveys will be in Harrisburg, Pa., then it will be on to Tennessee. They are also slated to perform at Del Mar’s annual “Night of the Horse” benefit this summer.

As for the Budweiser commercial, Turvey is understandably delighted at the attention but takes it with a grain of salt.

“How about that,” he said. “It only took 42 years to become an overnight success.”