Turcotte, first jockey to win the Triple Crown since Eddie Arcaro did it in
1948, the Belmont was a nice little ride in an easy chair. Turcotte loves to
get aboard stakes horses. "Ninety percent of them are easier to ride than
the cheaper horses," he says. "They're as determined to win as you
are." He loves to ride Secretariat. ("That horse is all business.")
And he especially loves to ride a horse like Secretariat in a weight-for-age
stake like the Belmont, where all the horses carry 126 pounds.
workings of genetics have made Turcotte just naturally small, though one of the
brothers in his family of a dozen children stands 5'10" and weighs over 200
pounds. Ron can ride at 112 pounds without too much trouble. But to make 112 he
has to ride on one of those postage-stamp saddles with a minimum of leather to
protect a rider's rump. In the Belmont he used his favorite saddle, a big,
heavy, cushioned contraption that weighs a full dozen pounds.
"Sitting on a
regular saddle is like sitting on two rods," he says. "But the big
saddle is like a sofa. It sits solid. It's very comfortable." (Since he
spoke French before he learned English, he pronounces the word
Big saddle or
small, Turcotte is a man to reckon with when he gets on a horse. He never was
in a saddle until he was 18 and he is not the most stylish of riders, but he
gets the job done. "I may look terrible on a horse but I feel good and I
think I'm with the horse," he says. "I don't try to adjust the horse to
me; I adjust me to the horse."
It took an
accident of nature, in the form of a long, cold winter, to make Turcotte a
jockey in the first place. This was in 1959-60, when he was apparently destined
to spend the rest of his life as a lumber cutter, like his father, around Grand
Falls in New Brunswick, Canada.
At the time
Turcotte was a good man with a chain saw and an ax. On his 5-foot frame there
bulged 128 pounds of muscle; his legs, especially, were so thick they almost
looked like tree trunks. He was also a good man at handling the horses that
pulled the trees out of the forest and into the camps. But these were
workhorses, not thoroughbreds. The nearest racing was in Montreal, more than
300 miles away, and he had never seen a horse run.
That hard winter
did two things. First, it brought Turcotte's older brother Camille back home
from Toronto where, when the weather was favorable, he was a roofing
contractor. Second, it closed down the New Brunswick lumber camps for months.
When the heavy snow still kept the camps closed into spring, Camille went back
to Toronto—and Ronnie Turcotte went with him to try his hand at the roofing
A horse named Bess
figured in his decision. Bess was the horse he had been working with. "I
loved her," he recalls, "she was almost human." But during that
long winter of unemployment for the whole Turcotte family his father sold Bess.
Turcotte, brought up under strict French-Canadian discipline, was not exactly
angry at his father because he knew the family needed the money. "But it
hurt my feelings," he says. "The thought of having to work with a
different horse was something I didn't like at all."
So the combination
of deep snow and the sale of Bess sent Turcotte to Toronto, exhilarated by the
idea of trying a new business. Alas, Toronto turned out to be in the midst of a
long carpenters' strike. No carpenters, no roofs to install. Turcotte holed up
in a boardinghouse and tried to figure out his next step. To an 18-year-old
with only an eighth-grade education, the future did not look too bright.
On a Saturday
afternoon in May, Turcotte walked downstairs from his room to pay his rent. On
the TV set Venetian Way was in the process of winning the Kentucky Derby.
"Maybe that is the life for you," his landlord said. "Why don't you
try to get a job at the track?"