An interview with Ron Turcotte, Secretariats partner in excellence
In an exclusive interview with Communities Digital News (CDN), world-class jockey Ron Turcotte shares his memories and experiences on training and riding the historical wonder horse: Secretariat, who won the coveted horseracing Triple Crown in 1973 in record-breaking fashion.
CDN: Mr. Turcotte, we appreciate this opportunity to speak with you about your background, and about your experiences with Secretariat.
Ron Turcotte: You’re welcome.
CDN: Some assume that because Secretariat won the 3 Triple Crown races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes) in the USA that you’re an American. Actually, you’re Canadian, aren’t you?
Ron Turcotte: Yes, I am a native Canadian, from New Brunswick, Canada. At about age 18, I began working at E.P. Taylor’s Windfield Farm (in 1959).
CDN: How did you get started, and when did you first ride and get your first victory?
Ron Turcotte: I was a trainer for the horses at Winfield Farm. I had a lot of duties, including feeding the horses, training them, grooming them, and administering medication when necessary. I got to learn a lot about equine care in the beginning. I rode one of the Winfield Farm horses (Northern Dancer) for my first win.
CDN: What were your impressions of Secretariat when you first started working with him?
Ron Turcotte: I was determined to take my time with him. Secretariat was sort of clumsy at first, but over time he got better. He was gentle, intelligent, patient, and easy to work with. He had all the qualities you’d want in a racehorse.
CDN: Although he won “Horse of the Year” as a 2-yr. old (in 1972), many questioned the greatness of Secretariat when he lost in the Wood Memorial just before the first Triple Crown race (Kentucky Derby) in 1973. What happened?
Ron Turcotte: We later discovered Secretariat suffered from an abscess in his mouth. Of course, that would cause tremendous pain when the bit is moved in his mouth. That discomfort was probably the reason why Secretariat came in a disappointing third. But it was no fluke that investors purchased shares for Secretariat amounting to over six-million dollars ($6M). He was well worth it. There were doubters, but he proved his worth above and beyond that.
CDN: There were some reports that Mrs. Penny Chenery (Tweedy) began to second-guess you as Secretariat’s jockey.
Ron Turcotte: Yes, that story was a bit overblown. While it’s true that she had some questions, she discussed her concerns with Lucian Laurin. Lucian told her “I’ll have a talk with Ron.” The rest is history.
CDN: What was your strategy in the first race of the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby) at Churchill Downs?
Ron Turcotte: Some thought that Secretariat was too slow coming out of the gate. Actually, I felt that he was a bit tight just before the race, so I wanted him to lag a bit behind, but not too far. I knew that he had the ability to surge ahead at the right time. We not only won the race, but Secretariat set a new track record that still stands to this day.
CDN: Mrs. Tweedy was concerned about the Preakness (at Pimlico, in Baltimore). She worried about the tight turns.
Ron Turcotte: Yes, it’s true that Pimlico had tighter turns, but I assured her that they were only a few feet tighter than Churchill Downs. Measurements from inside to outside rail were not much different. Secretariat made a wide move around the first turn and moved up quickly among the leaders. Once we were in the backstretch, I knew we had it, and we won the Preakness. But controversy about the official time at the track did not award us a record-setting finish.
CDN: The Belmont Stakes (at Belmont, NY) had a tremendous media build up to the race. The hype was because Secretariat could become the first Triple Crown winner since Citation (in 1948). What were your memories of the days leading up to the Belmont Stakes?
Ron Turcotte: There were news reporters who asked me “Are you nervous?” Well, if I wasn’t nervous on that day, I wouldn’t have been a normal person. Yes… I was very nervous. But in contrast, Secretariat was very relaxed and calm. He was not excited at all. I know that there have been reports to the contrary about Secretariat’s calmness, but it was just as I stated it.
CDN: How did the race at Belmont go, from your perspective?
Ron Turcotte: Secretariat started well out of the gate, and we had a great position along the rail. Early on, the horse “Sham” and Secretariat were holding the early lead, with Sham holding a slight lead after the first quarter-mile. From that point on, Secretariat took the lead, and increasingly widened his lead. It was amazing that Secretariat ran each successive quarter-mile faster than the last one. At one point, announcer Chic Anderson said: “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine!” Chic and I were personal friends, and I could hear him talking on the PA system during the race. I’m sure you know that Secretariat won the Belmont by thirty-one lengths, and knocked 2-3/5th seconds off the old time record. His finish time in the Belmont still stands to this day.
CDN: What can you tell us about the race at Aqueduct where you were suspended for 5 days?
Ron Turcotte: I was riding the horse “Speak Action” and rode the horse to a first-place finish. But the officials penalized me for “careless racing” by claiming that I had bothered the outside horse. As a result, I was not allowed to ride Secretariat in Canadian International Championship Stakes at Woodbine. That action against me hurt me more than anything: my not being able to participate in my home Canadian event. I thought it was unfair. I was replaced by jockey Eddie Maple, and he did a good job in riding Secretariat to victory in that upcoming race.
CDN: Your career as a jockey came to a premature end.
Ron Turcotte: Yes, I had an accident in a race (in 1978). It was rumored that the horse threw me to the ground. That is not true! My horse and another horse’s hooves collided, and my horse fell. I was pushed over the heels, and crashed on the ground. The accident left me paralyzed.
CDN: Most equine enthusiasts who were around for Secretariat’s Triple Crown win in 1973 have a lot of appreciation for Ron Turcotte. Canadians are especially proud of their “native son,” aren’t they?
Ron Turcotte: Yes, I’ve been fortunate to have been recognized for several Canadian and American awards :
New Brunswick (Canada) Sports Hall of Fame (1973)
Order of Canada (1974)
National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (1979)
New York Sports Hall of Fame (1980)
Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (1980)
Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame (1980)
Hawthorne Racing Hall of Fame (1986)
Paul Harris Fellowship (1990)
Long Island Sports Hall of Fame (1990)
CDN: Secretariat was named among the “Top 50 Athletes of the 20th Century.” Do you believe that was fitting for a horse to get that distinction?
Ron Turcotte: Absolutely! In my opinion, Secretariat had many more years left in him. He didn’t run long enough. He was getting better and better each year.
CDN: Secretariat was euthanized in September 1989. Can you tell us more about that?
Ron Turcotte: Yes. Secretariat suffered from Laminitis. It is inflammation and damage to the horse’s hoof. It causes extreme pain and leads to instability of the hoof. It can be managed in mild cases, but it has no cure once it is detected. I personally believe that the cause was from bad grazing grass, as well as extended exposure to frost. It was heartbreaking to put him down, but it was the humane thing to do.
CDN: Did you see the cinema production of “Secretariat?”
Ron Turcotte: Yes, I did.
CDN: Any feedback on the actors who portrayed the real-life characters?
Ron Turcotte: I felt that Diane Lane’s lines (as Penny Chenery) were well scripted. Otto Thorwarth (who played me in the film) was a good actor. But it might be unfair to critique him too much because you never feel that someone can portray you perfectly, no matter how good they are. John Malkovich (who portrayed Lucien Laurin) over-embellished his role. Lucian was nowhere near as loud and outgoing as Malkovich exhibited in the movie. He did his best, I guess.
But anyone who knew Lucien knew the man to be low-key and reserved.
CDN: Please tell us about your family.
Ron Turcotte: My wife’s name is Gaetane, and we have been married for 56 years. We have four wonderful daughters: Lynn (in Nova Scotia), Ann (in Arizona), Tina (in Nebraska), and Tammy (in Florida).
CDN: How would you like others to remember Ron Turcotte?
Ron Turcotte: He was a great equestrian. Had to learn everything (from A to Z) about the proper care and development of the horses. I still have a passion for it, and my goal was to do everything to the absolute best of my ability. I’m also a man who loves his family.
CDN: Mr. Turcotte, on behalf of our readers at Communities Digital News (CDN), we thank you again for your interesting and detailed account of your career as a jockey and the phenomenal record of riding Secretariat.
Ron Turcotte: You’re welcome; it was my pleasure.
Bill Randall is a contributing writer for COMMDIGINEWS. He and his wife reside in Mesa, AZ.