French-Canadian Jockey a Horse Racing Legend
By Juliana L’Heureux
Many horse racing enthusiasts and equestrians recognize Ron Turcotte as easily as they recall their first grade teacher’s names. Turcotte, 59, is a French-Canadian sports hero who rode the world renown racing giant Secretariat to the coveted Triple Crown victory in 1973, meaning, the horse won the Kentucky Derby, the Pimlico Preakness in Maryland and the New York Belmont Stakes. Although world famous in his field, Turcotte boasts a traditional French-Canadian upbringing, growing up speaking French and working alongside his lumberjack father, in Grand Falls, New Brunswick.
When I called Turcotte at his Grand Falls home about two years ago, he was cordial but subdued about his reputation as a legend. "I do not think of myself as a hero," said Turcotte. "I am just an ordinary man who was lucky enough to accomplish something," he said. Color posters of Turcotte riding Secretariat are instant sellers at sports memorabilia auctions. Secretariat was a phenomenal chestnut colt often called "The Horse of the Century". With Turcotte on board, Secretariat became the first horse in 25 years to win the prestigious Triple Crown of racing.
At the height of his jockey career, Turcotte was considered the most successful jockey in the history of horse racing.
Certainly, it is typical of French-Canadians and Franco-Americans to refrain from boasting, but a biography about Turcotte’s life speaks directly to his difficult but inspirational life. "The Will to Win: Ron Turcotte’s Ride to Victory" by sports writer Bill Heller with Ron Turcotte, tells the charming story about the jockey’s unlikely climb from a frustrated logger in the woods of Northern Maine and New Brunswick, to a world renown equestrian. Heller’s biography is a wonderful primer for those who might otherwise never read about the French-Canadian culture except through horse racing.
Turcottte’s heritage began in Quebec when his grandfather migrated east toward Drummond just outside of Grand Falls. His father, Fred, became a lumberjack when he was only 13 years old.
On July 22, 1941, Ron Joseph Morel Turcotte was born to Fred and Rose Devost Turcotte. He was baptized by Monsignor Alfred Lang, who added the name "Joseph", as was the custom for Catholic boys. Ron was one of 12 children in the Turcottte family. The family kept very strong Roman Catholic traditions.
"We all spoke French growing up", says Turcotte. "Mom could hardly speak English at all."
Life in New Brunswick was typical for the late 1940’s-50. Turcotte’s family had no running water and no central heating. They shared an outhouse and heated it with a wood stove. They slept two and three in a bed. For food, the family kept animals for meat and poultry for eggs. The boys learned to fish and hunt for the family food as well.
Turcotte inherited his father’s small size as a gift. Although Fred was also small for a lumberjack and did not have much formal education to share, he encouraged his son to be bigger than his 5 feet 4 inches and 130 pounds.
Turcotte was only 5 feet 1 inches and 128 pounds when he decided to follow his father’s footsteps and make it in the woods as a lumberjack. "It was awfully hard work, especially for a guy my size, but I was too stubborn to admit defeat," he says.
Although logging seemed impossible, Turcotte’s determination to be good at the job taught him to be a great horse jockey. Fred put him to work with the logging horses rather than in the dangerous forest work. This experience allowed Ron to learn about the differences in horses. Loggers used two kinds of horses: a light animal weighing 1,200-1,500 pounds; and another 2,000 pound full draft horse. In this logging work, Turcotte found the smaller horses worked faster, were more versatile and quicker to turn.
After reading "The Will to Win", one imagines Turcotte as the first French-Canadian "Horse Whisperer". He learned to communicate with horses while working them for logging. "My father taught me to be patient with horses," Turcotte says. "He taught me how to give horses confidence."
Eventually, Turcotte saw his future as being a dead end. "I was very small and working in lumber as hard. I didn’t see any rich lumberjacks, either", he recalls.
Following a set of lucky circumstances, Turcotte found himself at the racetrack in Laurel, Maryland. In 1965, he rode Riva Ridge to a Kentucky Derby win. He became nationally known and in 1971, Turcotte was introduced to Secretariat.
"He was the kindest of animals, but big and clumsy," Turcottte would recall. "He wasn’t spooky, he was calm, like a big riding pony."
Riding Secretariat to a Triple Crown victory was glory enough, but Turcotte also rode some of the finest horses of his time, including Canada’s Northern Dancer.
Turcotte and Secretariat were magnificent together. Lynne Wolfe, a nurse in Brunswick, recalls watching Turcotte and Secretariat win the 1973 Maryland Preakness at Pimlico Race Track. "It is a moment in my life I will never forget," says Wolfe.
In 21 starts, Secretariat’s career record was 16 wins, 3-second finishes and one third. His only race out of the money was his first start, where he finished fourth. His earnings were $1,316, 808 (in 1973 dollars).
A challenging twist occurred in Turcotte’s life when he became disabled after a riding accident. Later, Ron, his wife Gae and their four daughters moved back home to Grand Falls. Sometimes he speaks French with his wife and daughters at home, but the tradition is fading largely because the four girls married men from English-speaking families. Turcotte admits to speaking "just a little" French to the horses he rode.
On August 23, 1980, Turcotte was inducted into the Canadian Sports hall of Fame at the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds in Toronto. Every year, Turcotte is invited to be a guest of the Kentucky Derby.
Turcotte is well known in Grand Falls and in Van Buren Maine, where he picks up his mail. Another remarkable part of Turcotte’s life is how he went on to receive his high school diploma at Caribou High School after he retired in Grand Falls.
Today, Turcotte is an advocate for the disabled and he participates in charity fundraisers when possible.
"The Will to Win" would make delightful reading for young Franco-American readers who have very little cultural literature or modern heroes to help frame their lives. Unfortunately, the book had only one printing. About the biography, Turcotte says he is somewhat happy with the final print version but he would change a few things if allowed to write it over. Perhaps Fifth House Publishers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan could consider another printing with pressure from renewed interest. Recently, sports reporter Mark Beech from Sports Illustrated Magazine in New York called to get more information about Turcotte, having read my interview printed in the Portland Newspapers. It was fun to explain how Turcotte answers his own phone in Grand Falls.
A copy of "The Will to Win" can be purchased as item 1001 from www.racinglegends.com or calling 1-888-289-2709.
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Published in Le Forum, University of Maine
Copyright 2001, Juliana L'Heureux