SECRETARIAT, arguably the greatest race horse of all time, would have been fifty years of age on March 31st. Big Red passed away in 1989.
But one can not celebrate the birthday of the mighty Triple Crown champion without pointing to jockey Ron Turcotte, and recognizing him as an integral member of a dynamite team.
Watching replays of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes in 1973 it appears as if Turcotte was merely a passenger taken for a wonderful ride by the gleaming chestnut colt. But Penny Chenery, the owner of SECRETARIAT, knows better.
“Ron knew the horse, he knew the tracks and, as he said, good jockeys have clocks in their head,” Chenery said.
One of the great athletic performances in any sport was the breathtaking 31-length, tour de force Victory by SECRETARIAT in the 1 ½-mile Belmont. That race and its subsequent result was due to the careful planning by trainer Lucien Laurin and Turcotte.
They never took their eye off the grand prize of the Triple Crown, leading to measured Wins in the Derby and Preakness.
“Ron and Lucien had discussed the pace of the first two races and wanted him to Win, but not too much, to save something,” Chenery said.
Turcotte said he briefly used his whip in the Derby only to prompt SECRETARIAT to change leads for the stretch run. “He did, and I just put my whip away and galloped to the wire,” he recalled.
Fans watched the Belmont with some anxiety as the early duel between SECRETARIAT and SHAM produced sizzling fractions. Could Big Red possibly withstand such a wicked pace for a mile and a half? He was flesh and blood, after all.
While others fretted Turcotte did not; “I guess I was the coolest one of them all because I knew what I had under me,” he said.
It was not long before SHAM folded, leaving SECRETARIAT and Turcotte to race only against the clock and into history.
“Ron and the horse seemed to say, ‘OK, now we’ll show you what we can do when we’re not under wraps,’ ” Chenery said.
With SECRETARIAT “moving like a tremendous machine,” Turcotte peeked for challengers. They were rapidly receding into the distance. His only thought was to make sure he did not get in the horses’s way.
“You just try to sit still, as if he was running alone, you know, like he’s running in the field or running alone with nothing on him,” Turcotte said. “Horses always run better free.”
The final time of 2:24 remains a record that cannot be touched. The final margin of 31 lengths will forever cement the Belmont as one of the most dominant performances by any athlete — human or equine.
“I still get goose pimples when I see the race,” said Turcotte.
We all do Ron.