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Black Stallion


On this date in 1980, the Academy Awards ceremony took place, and featured, among other films, The Black Stallion, which was nominated for best picture and best supporting actor. A sequel, The Return of the Black Stallion immediately went into development, and Corky Randall, the head trainer on The Black Stallion was searching for a new black Arab for the starring role.

Sometime earlier, Susan Smestad was teaching school in Michigan when she started investing in her passion – horses. She bought a number of Arab mares for breeding but was hesitant about owning a stallion until her husband, Richard, persuaded her to buy one named Diamond Night.

Writer Merrie Sue Holton later interviewed the Smestads, who had by then permanently located outside Harvey, ND. Susan told Holton that her prospective stallion turned out to be a “pussycat – more afraid of me than I was of him.” She bought him.

Unfortunately, there came a day when a new blood line was needed, and Diamond Night was put up for sale in Arabian Horse World magazine. Corky Randall spotted the ad and went to the Smestad farm for a look.

United Artists wanted only black purebred Arabians for the film – no easy matter. Susan explained that true blacks are determined by noting a.) the color of the horse itself; b.) the color of the parents; and c.) the color of the offspring. Ironically, a true black isn’t born black, and even true blacks produce black offspring only 50% of the time.

Corky Randall knew his stuff. In fact, he trained Trigger for Roy Rogers, Silver for the Lone Ranger, and all the horses in the chariot-race scene in Ben-Hur. For the Black Stallion project, though, he needed something special: a horse gentle enough for a child and intelligent enough to train. He also needed a stallion that could be turned loose with mares and foals. Unlike “box-stall” stallions, 5-year-old Diamond Night had rounded up mares in the field. Corky liked what he saw, and the following February, the Smestads delivered the stallion to new owners in California.

Unfortunately, Diamond Night’s acting career was short. During a training session on June 29th, he reared, lost his footing, and ended up collapsing onto his right shoulder.

Onlookers said they heard what sounded like a rifle shot, and when the stallion got up, his front left leg was dangling from several bad fractures. Typically, a horse with these kinds of injuries would be put down. The main break was about three inches below the elbow, and a cast in that location would act as a fulcrum that would cause further breakage. “This is why this type of fracture is rarely attempted,” said veterinarian James Bullock. “Also, most horses will not tolerate a sling. (But) Diamond Night is an extremely intelligent horse and did very well in a sling.”

The following day, the stallion went through a 5-hour operation in which horizontal pins were inserted through the leg bones. These were held in place with an assembly of external vertical pins inspired by the Kirschner-Ebner device, an appliance previously used only for smaller animals. It took awhile, but the black did recover; he lived a full life and died at the age of 18.

Diamond Night wasn’t the only North Dakota connection to The Black Stallion. Kelly Reno, the boy who starred in the movie, was living in Colorado when he landed the role, but it’s reported he was originally from New Town and often came back for visits during his childhood. The film became quite an adventure for him. His parents were with him on location, but he said he still got homesick.

“In Rome, I'd have paid $10,000 for a McDonald's hamburger,” he said. “You never know how much you want that if after a week all you get is spaghetti. And I had me a little wine, but after a week, I started drinking cokes again.”

Sources: Merrie Sue Holton, Exploring Verendrye Country, Native North Dakotan goes to Hollywood, ND REC Magazine, May 1981, p 45; http://www.curavet.com/scientific.html; http://www.turnerclassicmovies.com/ThisMonth/Article/0,,70908%7C70909%7C59910,00.html

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm