By Lisa Autry, WKU Public Radio
Ron Turcotte was right at home Wednesday as he shook hands and signed autographs near the finish line at Kentucky Downs in Franklin. Track visitors flocked to this rock star of thoroughbred racing.
Turcotte won more than 3,000 races during his career, but he’s best known as the rider of Secretariat, winner of the U.S. Triple Crown in 1973, a feat no jockey since then has accomplished. He was left paralyzed after falling from a horse at Belmont Park in 1978, and now spends his retirement making appearances at racetracks to raise money and awareness of the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund. He spoke to WKU Public Radio about his storied career.
Take us back 41 years ago. You had just won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and was on the cusp of winning the Triple Crown for the first time in 25 years. Heading into the race that day, what were you feeling?
I was feeling great. I was really confident we were going to win the race because we had set a record just working out. I really didn’t think anybody could beat us.
Describe the feeling of crossing the finish line and knowing you had made history.
I was so happy that we won the Triple Crown, but it didn’t really hit me until two weeks later. It took a while to dawn on me.
What made Secretariat so special?
Secretariat was a very unusual horse. He was a gentle horse, generous horse, very smart. He never spent no energy for nothing but he loved to run.
Your best and worst moments came at Belmont Park. It’s where Secretariat sealed a Triple Crown win in 1973 and it’s also where your career ended five years later when you were thrown from a horse. What’s it like when you go back to visit Belmont?
That’s life. I always thought the biggest risk I was taking was driving down 495 going from my home to the racetrack. It turned out I got hurt on the racetrack, but I never dwelled on that. Once I came out of the hospital, I tried to go to training, but I kept coming down with an infection and my doctor advised me to get away from the racetrack for a while. I had some land I’d bought previously and so I built a home and my wife just loved it. I bought some cattle and some horses for the kids, so I made that my career then. I just always took life one day at a time. I still enjoy visiting Belmont every year.
Some sports have ebbed in popularity, but horse racing endures. Why do you think people remain so fascinated by the sport?
People are fascinated by a beautiful animal that gives it all for us. Something that’s not so fascinating are the drugs. I rode horses at a time when you didn’t use lasix. I don’t care what they say. Lasix is a performance-enhancing drug and I’m not for it. I’m for water, hay, and oats. The horses today are getting drugs and steroids and are really too big for the size of their bones and that causes them to break down.
Will there ever be another Triple Crown winner?
Yes, there should have been one this year in California Chrome. I think he just took the overland route and that cost him the race. He ran about 150 feet farther than the rest of the horses and he only got beat by 12 feet.