09/30/2010 12:57PM

Turcotte endured a bumpy ride

Bob Coglianese
Ron Turcotte rode Secretariat nearly his whole career, but he almost lost the mount a couple of times.

Many years after the 1973 Triple Crown, I had dinner with Ron Turcotte. He was in a wheelchair, which meant that it was after 1978, the year he suffered the spill that turned him into a paraplegic.

“How good was Sham?” I asked.

Turcotte thought for a moment.

“We’ll never know, will we?” he said.

Turcotte rode Secretariat in all but three of his 21 races – he missed the first two, when Paul Feliciano, an apprentice, took over, and the last, a win on grass in the Canadian International, when Eddie Maple deputized because Turcotte had been suspended. The day of Secretariat’s debut, July 4, 1972, Turcotte was at Monmouth Park, riding Summer Guest to victory in the Monmouth Oaks. The next time Secretariat ran, Turcotte was bed-ridden, the result of injuries sustained when one of his mounts suffered a fatal heart attack in a race at Aqueduct nine days before.

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When I read that Otto Thorwarth, a Midwest jockey who had never done a movie, had been cast as Turcotte for “Secretariat,” I thought that (a) the Turcotte part wasn’t going to be very meaty, and (b) this wasn’t going to be much of a film with Turcotte largely written out of it. I was wrong – the Turcotte part was substantial, and Thorwarth played him smartly.

Turcotte hadn’t seen the film as the end of September approached. He said he had been approached by filmmakers to act as a consultant for the movie, but things didn’t work out. He is 69 and lives in New Brunswick, Canada.

Turcotte, riding first call for trainer Lucien Laurin, knew he would replace Feliciano on Secretariat as soon as he got healthy. What Turcotte didn’t know was that Penny Chenery was wont to replace him after Secretariat ran third, well behind Angle Light and Sham, in the Wood Memorial.

Chenery, who had bankers and syndicate investors surrounding her the day of the Wood, was seething after the race. Even before the race, she had been unhappy with Turcotte and the way he had worked Secretariat four days out. Secretariat did a mile in 1:42 2/5, about five seconds slower than what Laurin had hoped for. Turcotte had messed up a workout on Riva Ridge the same day.

But Chenery knew the Kentucky Derby was no time to be switching jockeys. After all, Turcotte had won the Derby the year before, with Chenery’s Riva Ridge. Then when it was learned Secretariat had been suffering from an abscess on his lip the day of the Wood, everyone in the barn got a free pass.

Later in the year, however, Secretariat ran second in the Woodward, beaten by more than four lengths. This was Secretariat’s second loss in three starts – both to Allen Jerkens trainees, Onion in the Whitney Handicap and Prove Out in the Woodward.

Secretariat’s next race after the Woodward was to be his first grass start, in the Man o’ War at Belmont Park. Leading up to the Man o’ War, another trainer, Elliott Burch, said to Turcotte one morning that he had heard Secretariat might be getting a new rider.

Turcotte confronted Chenery, and she said: “You should have ridden the horse in the Woodward the way you rode him in the Belmont.”

“I didn’t have as much horse as I had for the Belmont,” Turcotte said.

“You’ve been riding hard all year,” Chenery said. “Our horses, horses for other people. Maybe your judgment is off.”

“Before you make a change,” Turcottte said, “I would think you’d give me the courtesy of watching the films of the Woodward. If you can point out to me what I did wrong, then I will accept that.”

They repaired to the catacombs of Belmont, to the film room down a corridor from the jockeys’ room.

They watched the race, and Chenery said nothing.

“Do you want to see it again?” Turcotte said.

“You’re riding him,” Chenery said.

Secretariat won the Man o’ War by five lengths.

“I usually let Lucien do my talking,” Turcotte said. “But this was one time when I felt I needed to speak up.”