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To the racetrack they did go

Paul W. Bennett

The Turcottes: The Remarkable Story of a Horse Racing Dynasty

Curtis Stock

Firefly Books

368 pages, hardcover and ebook

The storied annals of Canadian thoroughbred racing are full of unforgettable moments. There was Man o’ War and Sir Barton battling each other at the 1920 Kenilworth Gold Cup in Windsor, Ontario. Northern Dancer’s thrilling comeback victory in his last start, the 1964 Queen’s Plate, was another. But perhaps the best-known moment, captured in historic footage and recreated in a Walt Disney Pictures feature film, came on June 9, 1973. Sitting aboard the greatest racehorse of the modern era was a diminutive jockey in blue and white checkered silks, the Acadian Ron Turcotte, born in Drummond, New Brunswick, in July 1941. At the age of thirty-two, Turcotte had already ridden the chestnut stallion to wins at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville and the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. And now he was completing the Belmont Stakes in New York: the third jewel of the Triple Crown of North American horse racing.

Burying his head into Secretariat’s mane, before briefly looking back, Turcotte crossed the Belmont finish line in a smashing victory, besting the small field of three-year-olds by an amazing thirty-one lengths. Nearly 70,000 spectators filled Belmont Park that Saturday afternoon, while eleven million people watched on television. Secretariat and Turcotte had just won the first Triple Crown in a quarter-century.

In The Turcottes, the award-winning sportswriter Curtis Stock compares the horse and jockey’s magnificent feat to two other sporting milestones: Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile in 1954 and Bob Beamon winning gold at the 1968 Summer Olympics, in Mexico City, with his record-setting long jump. Although the legend of Secretariat is famous around the world, the story of Ron Turcotte remains relatively obscure. Even in the pantheon of Canadian jockeys, he tends to be overshadowed by two others: Sandy Hawley, who won 6,449 races and racked up $88.6 million in earnings, and the flamboyant Avelino Gomez, with 4,081 career wins, including four victories at the prestigious Queen’s Plate. Stock’s readable book, with turns of phrase befitting the Daily Racing Form, helps to right the balance.

Drawing upon three decades of reporting and interviews, Stock, a veteran of the Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald, writes with accessible, energetic prose, blending oral history, family biography, and imaginative techniques drawn from creative non-fiction. The result is a gritty, realistic tale of taking risks, seeking fame, and hitting the skids in a world of memorable kingpins (Jean-Louis Lévesque and E. P. Taylor), iconic trainers (Lucien Laurin), and legendary horses (Victoria Park, Northern Dancer, Riva Ridge, and Fanfreluche).

Ron Turcotte glances back at the field while riding Secretariat to Triple Crown glory in 1973.

Bettmann; Getty Images

It can be hard to resist a sports narrative that mixes rags and riches, triumphs and tragedies. The Turcottes has it all in spades. Hailing from a remote Catholic village, speaking mostly French, and sidelined in his prime by a catastrophic spill, Ron Turcotte lived by example. Humble and hard-working by nature, he found success on the track, which enticed four of his younger brothers — Noel, Rudy, Roger, and Yves — to don silks of their own. (Ron had thirteen siblings in total.)

Beginning with the family’s origins in lumberjack country near Grand Falls, in northwestern New Brunswick on the Saint John River, the book recounts the adventures of Ron and his brothers, ranging from Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack to courses and tack rooms across the continent. Fame and fortune were elusive or fleeting, and the struggle to stay light was all consuming and often destructive. Not all of them would survive the jockey’s lifelong battle with weight and the bottle.

While small in stature, Ron, at five foot one, was powerfully built and not afraid of chopping timber or skidding logs. “Three inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than his father, Ron’s bulk is all thick, hard muscle,” Stock writes in the present tense, as he does throughout the book. “Working 16 hours a day lifting, pulling, sawing, prying and sorting the logs by length will do that to you, especially when you are cutting an average of 100 trees a day.” Determined to escape rural poverty, Ron took his cue from his oldest brother, Camille, and moved to Toronto with his good friend Reggie Pelletier in 1960. The two found back-breaking but low-paying jobs at a golf course, picking worms at night to be sold as bait. On the verge of giving up and going home —“Between the two of them all the boys have left is $4.12”— Ron happened to catch Victoria Park racing in the Kentucky Derby on his landlord’s grainy black and white television. (The thoroughbred finished third, the first Canadian horse to place in a Triple Crown race.)

Sizing his young tenant up, the landlord pointed to the screen and offered some fortuitous advice. “You know,” he said, “that’s what you should be doing. Lose a little weight and you could be a jockey.” Ron looked completely puzzled; he had never watched a horse race before. “A jockey,” the man said again. “The little boys in the white pants.” The next day, Ron and Reggie travelled down to the old Woodbine Park, in Toronto’s East End. “A guard quickly turns them away,” Stock writes. “The thoroughbreds are at the ‘New Woodbine,’ which opened four years ago in 1956.” Heading across the city, they somehow found entry-level work with E. P. Taylor’s stable, “where the great Gordon ‘Pete’ McCann, who started Victoria Park on his way, trains.”

“It is a set of circumstances that could never be duplicated,” Stock points out. “Ron comes down the stairs while the Kentucky Derby is on TV. His landlord happens to love horse racing. A trainer offers Ron and Reggie a lift and gets them into the backstretch. And Ron ends up at E. P. Taylor’s barn, of all places. It is a billion-to-one quadfecta.”

Ron first had to learn how to ride with a saddle. “At home he only rode bareback,” Stock explains. “But you would never know it.” Then on June 21, 1961, he experienced an exhilarating rush on his first mount, Whispering Wind. He raced another thirteen times that year, finishing with “no wins, no seconds and no thirds.” The next season, he registered his first win aboard Pheasant Lane, racing in Fort Erie, Ontario. By 1964, he was racking up enough victories to be the highest-grossing athlete in Canada. Over his seventeen-year-career, Ron finished first 3,032 times and won $26.6 million in cumulative earnings. Together, the Turcotte brothers registered 8,251 wins and recorded nearly $60 million in purses.

Being a jockey is a dangerous occupation, and Ron and his brothers experienced their fair share of calamities, debilitating injuries, and horrific lows. Maintaining 105 pounds at weigh-in can require extraordinary measures. Starving oneself, taking laxatives and diuretics, running miles in latex suits, and forced vomiting did the trick for a time. There were bouts of depression, heavy binge drinking, and cheap motels near the racetracks.

A tragic accident at Belmont, in July 1978, left Ron paralyzed and living in a wheelchair. Roger and Noel battled alcoholism and both died by suicide. Rudy died of kidney and liver failure. The youngest brother, Yves, a high school graduate who gave up a job at McCain Foods to join the sport, was bucked off “a nervous two-year-old filly” in 1994 at the starting gate and suffered badly broken feet. Still, he was determined to keep racing. “I’m going to see the track doctor, John Walker, this morning,” he told his wife after the accident. “Maybe he can freeze the nerves.” But at thirty-nine, after recording 1,347 wins and multiple head injuries, he ultimately had to say goodbye to competition. (Years later, in 2010, he was hired as a steward by Horse Racing Alberta, “his long-sought ambition.”)

Today, sculptures in Calgary, New York, and Lexington, Kentucky, as well as a 2,000-pound bronze statue in downtown Grand Falls, commemorate Secretariat and Ron, now eighty-one. A sensitive, sympathetic National Film Board production, Secretariat’s Jockey: Ron Turcotte, came out in 2013. That documentary, directed by Phil Comeau, testifies to its subject’s personal resilience, positive outlook, and commitment to supporting injured jockeys, who often struggle in their post-racing lives.

Stock’s The Turcottes further recognizes Ron Turcotte’s star-studded but often overlooked racing career and determined recovery. At the same time, it is packed with painful lessons about how an addiction to the ponies can bring ruination. Although much of the well-spun hard-luck story of the Turcotte brothers is heartbreaking, once you crack open this book, it’s hard to put down.

Paul W. Bennett is an author, education columnist, and regular guest commentator on talk radio. He lives in Halifax.