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Turcotte: The best and worst of times at Belmont

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In 1973, Hall of Fame jockey Ron Turcotte rode Secretariat to horse racing’s greatest prize, capping the Triple Crown with an astonishing 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes.

But the site of his greatest victory was also where Turcotte’s career came to an end just five years later, when he was catapulted over the head of Flag of Layte Gulf during the eighth race at Belmont Park on July 13, 1978.

The horses had just broken from the gate when Turcotte and his steed, coming out of the No. 3 shoot, were sideswiped by a horse on the inside, pushing Flag of Layte Gulf into the horse on the right. Turcotte fought to keep the horse upright, but no amount of pulling and tugging from his 5-foot-1, 113-pound frame could right the animal.

The horse’s head dipped down and Turcotte was thrown forward, landing awkwardly and obliterating the No. 5 and No. 6 vertebrae in his back and breaking the No. 4 and No. 7 vertebrae. He was paralyzed from the waist down at that moment.

“I remember everything,” said Turcotte, speaking from a motel room in Virginia where he was attending an event to honor the horse he rode to the Triple Crown 30 years ago, Secretariat. “I was conscious all the while, except when they put me under in the operating room at about 1 a.m.”

The race had gone off at about 5:30 p.m. the day before.

“I thought I was going to win the race,” said Turcotte, who lived in Queens during the mid 1970s. “I broke out of No. 3 and the No. 1 horse came out and pushed me over into the other horses. I was trying to hold her up. I went down over her head. We went down head first. When her head swung down like that ... I was lucky my helmet strap broke cause I could have broken my neck.

“I guess that’s part of the war,” he added. “But you take that as part of life, you don’t stop living. I was luckier than some. Some never made it to talk again. I’m still living 25 years later, 25 years in July.”

Turcotte had rods implanted in his back to stabilize his spine. He would never walk again and his career as one of the most successful jockeys in history was at an end. His time in the saddle spanned close to 16 years during which he set records that still stand and became forever linked to the horse some call the greatest to ever run, Secretariat.

Secretariat still holds the course record at Belmont and the world record for the mile-and-a-half distance, both set the day he won the third leg of the Triple Crown in 1973 by an astonishing 31 lengths. Secretariat is the horse with which Turcotte is immediately identified, but by no means the only horse the former jockey ever rode and is just part of his story.

Turcotte’s sojourn began in New Brunswick, Canada — logging country — where the slight-of-build teenager worked as a lumberjack for five years before starting his career as a professional jockey at the age of 21 in 1962. He was a natural and quickly established himself as one of the top riders in his native land.

“I was much older than most people when I started to race,” Turcotte said.

He ran his first race aboard a horse named Peasant Lane on April 9, 1962, winning in his debut. He ended the year as the leading rider in Canada, an honor he repeated the following year.

“That’s when I decided to go for greener pastures,” he said. “I heard if you make it in the Big Apple, you can make it anywhere.”

Turcotte left Canada behind and started racing in various cities in the Northeast before making his New York state debut at Saratoga in August 1964. He was the leading rider in the state for the remainder of the year, which he said “was pretty good for a newcomer.”

During this period Turcotte moved to New York, living briefly on Queens Boulevard near the Van Wyck Expressway and later in Rosedale before settling for a time in Oyster Bay.

Over the next several years, Turcotte established himself as one of the top jockeys in the world, wracking up several prestigious wins, including the Preakness in 1965 aboard Tom Rolfe. In 1970, Turcotte, who was aboard the Canadian filly Fanfreluchem, was presented the winning trophy for the Manitoba Centennial Derby by Queen Elizabeth II.

In that same year he became the only jockey to win the Hialeah Turf Series, which included the Palm Beach, Bougainvillea and Hialeah Turf Cup, riding the grass horse Vent du Nord.

Even if he had never mounted Secretariat, Turcotte would have ensured his entrance into the Hall of Fame by riding Riva Ridge to victories in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in 1972.

Among the other races he won in the more than 3,000 he participated in were the Canadian Championships, Massachusetts Handicap, Laurel Futurity Stakes, Garden State Stakes, Man O’ War Stakes, Suburban Handicaps, Champagne Stake and Alabama Stakes — all twice.

Other titles to his credit included the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Marlboro Cup, Hawthorne Gold Cup, Black Eyed Susan, Kentucky Oaks, Monmouth Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Blue Grass, Travers, Selima, Sorority, Alcibiades, Arlington Washington Lassie, Wood Memorial, Hopeful, Arlington Invitational, Spinaway, Matron, Brooklyn Handicap, Florida Derby, Hollywood Derby, Hawthorne Derby, Quebec Derby, Manitoba Derby, American Derby and The Cornhusker.

“I pride myself on the horsemanship I had and my rapport with the horses,” Turcotte said. “I don’t want to be bragging, but as far as schooling the horses, I got the best out of them. It’s a two-way affair. It’s a give and take thing.”

All the horses and all the victories, however, are all second to 1973 and Secretariat. But at first glance, Turcotte was not awed by the horse. That is, until he rode him.

“There were a lot of special horses, but when it came to Secretariat, he was a great horse,” Turcotte said. “Very intelligent, very clever. You don’t want to get too high on a horse. I thought he was a nice horse, until he started racing. Then he just kept getting better and better.

“The most intelligent horse I ever rode, the boldest I ever rode. He could run into a brick wall. He was just a great animal. Probably the greatest horse that ever lived. Now everyone knows what a great horse he was.”

Turcotte first rode Secretariat on July 31, 1972 and won nine straight races with the horse until the Wood Memorial on April 21 the following year, a race in which Secretariat finished third, the first time since the horse’s first race that it failed to win. The Kentucky Derby was just two weeks away.

“Any other horse I’ve been on ... if they ever ran as sick as he was, they would never have run the rest of the year,” Turcotte said of Secretariat, who ran the Wood Memorial despite suffering from a abscess on his upper lip. “He came back and set two world records.

“It just shows he was flesh and blood,” Turcotte said. “No horse ever beat Secretariat, only circumstances did.”

The resilient horse bounced back quickly, winning the Derby in 1:59.2, beating out Sham and Our Native, the place and show finishers, respectively, with a brilliant stretch run to win going away. Secretariat’s time is still the course standard at Churchill Downs.

Two weeks later with Turcotte on board, Secretariat handily beat out Sham and Our Native again in the Preakness, covering the course in the record time of 1:54.2. Incredibly, the horse went into the first turn dead last, but rocketed past the field to take the lead on the backstretch and easily held off Sham again for the Pimlico crown.

The Triple Crown was solidified on June 9 when Secretariat set a standard all other horses are judged by, covering the mile-and-a-half course at Belmont Park in 2:24 flat — 31 lengths in front of second place Twice a Prince and third place My Glint.

What most people don’t remember, however, are Turcotte’s own accomplishments. In 1973 he became the first jockey to win the American Triple Crown in 25 years since Eddie Arcaro and Citation claimed the honor. He also became the first jockey in 70 years to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbys and the only one to ever win five of six consecutive Triple Crown races, an honor he still holds.

“The thing about him, you could place him wherever you wanted to — he never fought you,” Turcotte said of Secretariat. “It’s not bad to be known as the guy who rode Secretariat.”

The horse finished its career on Oct. 28, 1973, winning the Canadian Open. In all, Secretariat raced only 21 times, winning 16, placing second three times and showing once.

Turcotte, however, continued to ride for another five years.

“I won my share of races and stake races the same,” he said. “I had a very successful career.”

Ironically, the site of Turcotte’s greatest triumph is also where his career came to a sudden and tragic end.

The year after his accident, Turcotte finally left New York and the United States to return to New Brunswick, where he and his wife, Gaetane, raised his four daughters. He does his share of charity work, speaking out for the handicapped as well as for wilderness preservation.

He has three grandchildren, who have become a focus of his life.

“Now I guess we live for them,” he said.

When asked if he planned on attending the Belmont Stakes this year, Turcotte was intentionally ambiguous. He did not say, that it was out of the question.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You never know.”

Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide is the favorite to win the Belmont this year and if successful will become the first horse in 25 years — since Affirmed — to win the Triple Crown. Odds are Turcotte will be there to see it.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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