It has been nearly a half-century since Secretariat thundered through the Triple Crown, but the strapping chestnut colt’s Canadian jockey, Ron Turcotte, still receives thousands of requests for autographs. Pictures, programs, old racing forms and newspaper clippings jam his post-office box in Van Buren, Me., across the border from where he lives in northern New Brunswick.
“I still get as many as I did when I was riding,” said Turcotte, who is 78 and remembers details from 1973 as though they happened yesterday. “I look at some things people send me and wonder where they got them.
“Some packages don’t even have an address on them. They write ‘Ron Turcotte’ on the front and somehow it reaches me.”
Secretariat’s unmatched sweep of horse racing’s most prestigious events began on the first Saturday in May 47 years ago. No thoroughbred has ever run faster than Secretariat did in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and Belmont Stakes that followed. Because of that, both the horse and the man in the saddle will never be forgotten.
This year’s annual Run for the Roses was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been rescheduled for Sept. 5. In its place, NBC televised a computer-generated virtual race among 13 Triple Crown winners on Saturday.
Secretariat, who was beaten only four times in 21 starts, was listed as the favourite in a field that included Seattle Slew, American Pharoah, Affirmed, Justify, War Admiral and Sir Barton, among others. At at time without sports the simulation was nearly as exciting as a real race. Secretariat won, finishing ahead of Citation and Seattle Slew.
“Anybody who picks against Secretariat doesn’t know anything about horses,” Turcotte says over the phone.
Turcotte lives on a farm in the small village of Drummond with Gaetane, his wife of 54 years. From their back deck, they enjoy a stunning view of the Appalachians.
Left a paraplegic in a racing accident in 1978, he used to enjoy gabbing over coffee at the nearest Tim Hortons.
“It was like a ritual for me,” he says. “I’m the kind of guy who likes to hang around with old friends.”
But because of the spread of the coronavirus, he spends days and nights poring over his computer.
“I am like everybody else, in a cage now,” he says good-naturedly. “My doctor locked me in. He told Gaetane to weld the wheels shut on my [wheel]chair.”
Over a riding career that spanned 17 years, he landed in the winner’s circle 3,032 times. He won almost every major stakes race that exists – some multiple times – but is best remembered for his and Secretariat’s supremacy in 1973.
For years, fans brought roses to the breeding farm in Kentucky where Secretariat died in 1989 of laminitis, a painful foot disease. Many made pilgrimages to his grave in the bluegrass during derby week each year.
Seth Hancock, the long-time operator of Claiborne Farm, where Secretariat lived out his retirement as a breeding horse, once said that if you want to know who Secretariat is in human terms, “Just imagine the greatest athlete in the world. Now make him 6-foot-3, the perfect height. Make him intelligent and kind. And on top of that, make him the best-lookin’ guy ever to come down the pike. He was all those things as a horse.”
In Turcotte, Secretariat also had one of the greatest riders in the world.
“I get requests from fans as far away as Australia, and from countries I’ve never heard of,” he says. “If people can take the time to send me things, I should sign and send them back."
In 1972-73, he became the first jockey to win five of the six races consecutively in the Triple Crown. When he won the Kentucky Derby in 1973, he was the first to do it in back-to-back years since Jimmy Winkfield in 1902.
Racing fans would wait for him at the end of each day at the track, and follow him into the parking lot to ask for an autograph. Some riders didn’t like it, but it never bothered Turcotte.
“I always put myself in the place of the fans and the kids that would ask me. If I was impolite, they might not ever come to the races again. And without fans, there would be no races."
Secretariat won 15 of 18 starts with Turcotte at the reins. He finished fourth in his first race under a different rider after being bumped at the start, but was never worse than third after that.
Turcotte says Secretariat was sick or unprepared to race the only other times he didn’t win.
“That horse should have never been beat except for his first race,” he says. “He never failed us. We failed him.”
Once, Secretariat finished second in a stakes race while running a fever of 105 F.
“I remember bringing him back to be unsaddled afterward and I was crying as I jumped off him,” Turcotte says. “I had never had a horse try that hard that was that sick. How he finished second is beyond me."
One of 12 children, Ron Turcotte grew up a little more than two kilometres from where he lives today. His family’s home had neither running water nor electricity, and the kids slept two and three to a bed.
At 14, he quit school to become a lumberjack. He was all of 5-foot-1 and 128 pounds but helped his dad by driving a team of horses to haul lumber out of the woods.
At 18, he and a friend went to Toronto looking for work in construction. When that didn’t pan out, they got jobs with a bait company picking up nightcrawlers on a golf course. They earned $3 for every 1,000, which was just enough to pay for the room they shared in a downtown boarding house.
In 1960 on the first Saturday in May, Turcotte discovered his landlord watching the Kentucky Derby. There was more than usual interest that year, thanks to a Canadian-bred entry named Victoria Park.
After the race, in which Victoria Park finished third, Turcotte’s landlord turned to him and said, “You ever thought about being a jockey?”
“What is that?” the little New Brunswicker asked.
“I had never heard about horse racing,” Turcotte says. “The only race of any kind I ever saw was between cowboys challenging one another to see who had the best horse. I had never even sat in a saddle.”
After learning there were race tracks in Toronto, Turcotte hitchhiked to the old Greenwood track and was twice turned away when he attempted to ask for a job. The third time, at the new Woodbine, a horseman got him a job walking horses after their workouts for Windfields Farm. Very quickly, a trainer recognized that he was good at handling horses, and within a year he rode in his first race. After winning riding titles at Woodbine Racetrack in 1962 and 1963, Turcotte took his talent to the United States and quickly joined the ranks of the sport’s most elite jockeys.
The list of famous thoroughbreds he piloted included the Canadian icon Northern Dancer – whose 1964 Derby record Secretariat broke – Preakness winner Tom Rolfe and Riva Ridge. He also rode Fanfreluche, a bay mare bred in Canada, which he piloted to victory in 1970 at the Manitoba Centennial Derby, where the Queen presented Turcotte with the winning trophy.
“She could talk all about horses,” he says. “She talked about Northern Dancer. She is very great for that. If she has anything in common with anybody, she can talk at length.”
Two years later, Turcotte won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes on Riva Ridge. In 1973, he and Secretariat won the Triple Crown.
Turcotte says he knew Secretariat better than anyone, and had schooled him from the time he was a yearling.
“They were anxious to race him, but I didn’t want to rush,” he says. “I was working to make him a classic horse. For me, it was love at first ride. He was so beautiful.”
Turcotte misses the massive colt with a stride nearly eight metres long. Secretariat ate 15 quarts of oats a day during that three-year-old campaign in 1973. Secretariat would push his nose against the jockey’s hand as he unwrapped a mint or sugar cube.
“He wasn’t like a horse,” he says. “He was like a human; I really loved him.”
There will be no Kentucky Derby this weekend because the pandemic made it unsafe for more than 100,000 people to cram into Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
“I would have loved to see another derby while I’m still here,” Turcotte says, teasing about his age. “I’m getting up there.”
He will watch Saturday’s virtual race with great interest.
“It is kind of a no-win situation,” he says. “Somebody is going to end up mad. I hope it’s not me. But it doesn’t really matter. He set records that in 47 years have never been broken."