Every year, on the first Saturday in May, at Kentucky Derby time, I’m reminded about my meeting with Ron Turcotte, the French-Canadian jockey who has been kind enough to give me several phone interviews over many years. But, in 2011, I had the experience of meeting him, in Waterville ME.
I’m not an autograph collector, but the signature I own from Ron Turcotte is a particular treasure.
Turcotte is a horse racing Triple Crown hero who exceeded my expectations after we met, because he exposed a life beyond the dream of winning equestrian victories.
Turcotte is rare among an elite group of racing champions. He won back to back races at the Kentucky Derby in 1972 and 1973. Then, in 1973, riding Secretariat, he made horse racing history by winning the Triple Crown.
Turcotte and Secretariat were an impressive racing duo. Together, they won the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the Preakness at Pimlico, in Baltimore Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York, during the same year. It’s an extraordinarily difficult feat for one horse and jockey to win all three races. In fact, some sports writers called Secretariat “the super horse of the 19th century”, because of his ability to sustain his strength through the end of his winning races.
Being a world famous jockey is heroic enough, but Turcotte became a champion after acquiring a disability in 1978, the result of an accident at the Belmont, in New York. Since then, he’s been a paraplegic, meaning the injury caused him to lose mobility in his legs. His heroism shines in the quietly professional way he expresses a profound appreciation for his life after acquiring a disability. Moreover, he’s become a motivational speaker for disabled jockeys and a role model of for all who overcome physical challenges.
My meeting with Turcotte followed more than decade writing about him as a news reporter for Maine’s French-Canadian and Franco-American cultures. He was born on July 21, 1941, one of eleven siblings. He grew up in a close knit French speaking family, in Drummond, New Brunswick, Canada. His father worked in the Northern woods as a logger. Turcotte left school after finishing the 8th grade to work with his father in logging, but his small size kept him out of the rugged side of the job. Instead, his job as a teenager was caring for the logging camp’s horses. Although he was too small for forestry work, his physical attributes made him a perfect fit for horse racing.
Eventually, Turcotte learned to work with race horses, which clearly lead him to become a jockey. In one interview I had with him, he acknowledged his “horse whisperer” talent for treating horses with gentle tactics and speech.
Computer search engines typically find my name when people start looking for the Triple Crown winners of horse racing. My byline pops up when Kentucky Derby followers look for past winners.
Turcotte rode in 20,281 races in his career, beginning in 1961. By the premature end of his career in 1978, he won first place in 3,021 races (including riding Riva Ridge in the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes).
Riding the horses Riva Ridge and Secretariat gave him the biggest thrills, winning two consecutive Derbies, which had not been done in 71 years. Then, of course, came the honor of winning the Triple Crown.
Numerous accolades and honors are included in his resume. He is an esteemed member of several Halls of Fame, including The Canadian All Sports Hall of Fame. Sculptor Edwin Bogucki created a statue at Churchill Downs featuring Turcotte, riding Secretariat immediately after the Kentucky Derby on May 5, 1973, as he danced into the winner’s circle, led by his groom Eddie Sweat.
Every May, Turcotte is a VIP guest of the Kentucky Derby.
Queries about how to find Turcotte come from sports magazines, television anchors, curious readers and children. An 11 year old 6th grader from Upstate New York asked her grandmother to call me about how she might contact Ron Turcotte? In her case, she wanted to ask Turcotte how to find the jockey clothing like he wore in 1973, when he rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown victory. She wanted to role play his winning story to her school class.
Responding to her request, Turcotte went beyond speaking with this young fan on the phone. He even took time to write a short autobiography called “My Personal Story”, so she could read it during the show and tell, while wearing the racing attire.
He wrote to her about his faith in God and the “ups and downs” of his racing career. “I had some great wins and some disappointments, but through it all, I have always tried to give it my best,” he writes.
Furthermore, he writes, “I had a chance to ride some top horses”.
In Waterviille, Turcott’s smile beamed through a calm demeanor. You get the sense of how he must have had a calming effect on high strung racing horses.
Wearing a casual cloths, he looked completely different than the real life jockey actor Otto Thorwarth, who played Turcotte in the popular Disney released movie “Secretariat”.
Turcotte showed videos of his horse racing victories. Having him personally explain the details of each individual Triple Crown win, while showing videos riding Secretariat was nearly as exciting as being at the track. He explained what was going on with detailed descriptions of the race, like the events happened yesterday. He’s justifiably pleased to show the video of Secretariat’s Belmont win, the third leg of the Triple Crown. That’s the arduous race where he won, with Secretariat, by 45 lengths, a record that’s yet to be broken.
Spontaneous applause followed each video, especially when the audience saw Turcotte edging out other horses while appearing to fly toward the finish lines.
As the audience cheered each race, a jovial Turcotte seemed to take on the energy of where he was in the videos. He looked like he could let go of his wheel chair in a second, if someone just put him in the saddle of another race horse.
I’m confident Turcotte will be a VIP guest during the May 2017, running of the derby, also called the most exciting two minutes in sports. It was an honor to meet him and to realize how he is a hero in French-Canadian sports history.