By Carole Hemingway | Photography: Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel
Sometimes, dynamite comes in small packages and a jockey by the name of Ron Turcotte, born July 22, 1941 came into the world in human form and was born to win. As feisty as he was small, Ron proved to be the best jockey of his generation in both Canada and the United States.
Then there was ‘the horse’ Secretariat, born March 30, 1970; 12:10 AM who set off a genetic explosion and whose echoes of winning the Triple Crown on June 9, 1973 at the Belmont Stakes still reverberate throughout the Hall of Fame and the rest of the thoroughbred world.
I first laid eyes on Ron Turcotte when he gave a horse talk in Waterville, Maine, thanks to my dear, cherished friends Julie and Richard L’Heureux. Our souls met across a table he was sitting at when his hand covered mine and a bolt of lightning traveled through my entire physical body.
Between late night phone calls, loaded with conversation, laughter and pauses, in the wee small hours of the morning from Ron’s native home in New Brunswick, Canada, plus a lot of reading and extensive research, I learned a lot about horses, jockeys, and the man himself.
Ron quit school at the age of 14 to help his father support his family of 12 and like his father, he became a lumberjack in the deep woods of Canada. The actual work was difficult, dangerous, seasonal; low paying with primitive living conditions.
At one point in his early years he picked worms on a golf course for $3 per thousand worms, in the middle of the night, wearing a mining helmet, for a bait company.
He started at the bottom in the horse world, as a ‘hot walker,’ cooling down horses by walking them in circles. A natural with horses, he began his riding career on June 21, 1961 on a horse called ‘Whispering Wind.’ By speaking to them in French, he discovered that they accelerated into another gear and won races. He knew that horses win races, not jockeys.
He married ‘the love of his life’ on August 25, 1965. Gae gave him four beautiful daughters. They were stronger together than they were alone.
The circumstances that brought Ron Turcotte and “Secretariat” together were simply destiny, and it played out like a movie. Actually, the true story did become the movie, Secretariat. A horse from North Dakota named Cyclone Larry played Secretariat.
Secretariat won the Triple Crown by 31 lengths. As the announcer said, “He is moving like a tremendous machine.” The horse’s performance was electrifying. With Turcotte in the saddle, they had stealth power.
In one of my conversations with Ron, I asked him, “How did it feel to ride him all that distance?” He paused, took a deep breath and told me: “I thought at one point, we were going to lift off the ground, like Pegasus and that I was never going to see my family again.” That must have been the closest thing to heaven, not to mention one hell of an orgasm.
By mid-1978, Ron won a total of more than $29 million in purse money. He won more than 3,000 races. All this happened during a time of political turmoil when Nixon was being broiled alive in the Watergate scandal and finally resigned. Our world is stressed out right now, many people feel fear and anxiety living in uncertainty. I wanted to tell you ‘a true story’ of courage that will shift your thinking and give you hope and faith in the future.
Just before Ron’s 37th birthday, July 13, 1978 his life spun severely out of control. The horse he was riding went down, and Turcotte with her. He somersaulted twice and landed on his back. He couldn’t get his breath, so he pushed his stomach in. It was liked pushing in a bag of water. Then he reached down and touched his legs. An awful feeling. It was like he was touching the legs of someone else. That’s when he knew the truth, that he was paralyzed.
He had a few operations but nothing could fix what was broken; yet to this day he keeps his spirit and manages to adapt to his fate. He’s not bitter, cranky, but rather a joy to be around. Ron Turcotte is a much-loved man. Loved by his wife, his family and fans all over the world. He looks forward and thanks God every morning when he opens his eyes.
Carole Hemingway is an internationally regarded author, speaker, and historical researcher. She currently lives along the coast of Maine where she is writing a book about Gettysburg, and waiting to publish another book about her father, Ernest.