Tag Archives: Horse Racing

Hanover Horses

Waco Hanover and Donnie MacAdams photo Barbara LivingstonA Facebook share – Waco Hanover celebrates his 40th birthday in 2017. He’s a Standardbred pacer, living in Vermont.

From his name, I knew he was of Hanover Shoe Farms. I’ve read Donald P. Evans’ Hanover: The greatest name in harness racing. It tells the story of a Pennsylvania racing and breeding stable that the Hanover Shoe Company owners started at the turn of the 20th century.

About ten years ago, after reading the book, I read online about Ralph Hanover who won the US pacing Triple Crown in 1983. He was the only Canadian-owned horse to do so. I learned that Ralph Ralph Hanover racing photo Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famehad lived at Grand Royal Farms near Calton, Ontario. It is a magnificent property, one you know has seen days of glory. It was past those days when I knew it, but it was still a working horse farm.

So Ralph Hanover and Grand Royal, what were their stories?

The story of Grand Royal was easy to find. It had been a large Standardbred stable in southwestern Ontario. Then it went to Thoroughbred racing. Then it changed hands several times and its racing days were over.

mare and foal Grand Royal 1980s photo Elgin County Archives
Standardbred mare and foal, Grand Royal Farms, Calton ON, late 1980s

Finding out about Ralph Hanover proved more difficult. I googled and asked anyone I knew in the horse business. He went to Kentucky to stand at stud. Then he’d gone to Prince Edward Island, maybe. Alive? Nobody knew.

Reading about Waco Hanover now, I wondered how closely related he was to Ralph. My go-to horse pedigree site told me Waco Hanover, born 1977, is the son of Tar Heel and Wanda Hanover. Tar Heel was son of Billy Direct and Leta Long. Wow, Billy Direct was the horse who matched Dan Patch’s record 1:55 mile in 1938.

Tar Heel was Ralph Hanover’s maternal grandsire. Ralph was born in 1980, sired by Meadow Skipper out of Ravina Hanover. So Waco and Ralph’s mother are half-siblings, making Waco Ralph’s uncle.

Ralph Hanover Waco Hanover pedigree by Dorothy Stewart
Ralph and Waco Hanover pedigree chart (click for larger view)

Then I google Ralph. Right at the top are articles about his death in October 2008 at the age of 28. He lived in Dutton, West Elgin, Ontario. In 2008 I lived in St. Thomas, a half hour drive from Dutton.

West Elgin Horse Farms

In July 2008, we went on a tour of West Elgin horse farms. One was a harness racing stable. I talked to the owner, but did not ask about Ralph Hanover. If I had, he likely would have told me that Ralph lived a few concession roads over. Ralph lived on the Mac Lilley farm.

One of the owners of Grand Royal Farms in its harness racing heyday was Doug Lilley. Googling hasn’t given me the connection between Mac and Doug, but the Mac Lilley Farms website says it’s a three-generation operation.

Ralph Hanover and Ron Waples horseracinghalloffame.com/1986/01/01
Ralph Hanover and Ron Waples, Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame 1986 inductees

So the lesson from this? Google, drive around, ask – and keep asking and driving. One good chat at the Western Fair race track probably would have told me where Ralph Hanover was. And keep googling. I might not have found out about Ralph until he died, since that’s what most of the results were about, but at least I’d have known eight years earlier.

Finding Ralph, too late, has made me think about the famous horses meeting their fans at the Hall of Champions in the Kentucky Horse Park (see my Cigar). And Dan Patch’s towns, Oxford, Indiana and Savage, Minnesota, making sure that visitors know they’re entering hallowed horse racing ground (see my Dan Patch). Ralph Hanover was among the elite of racehorse champions. Dutton deserves to be proud of being his final hometown. I only wish I’d known he was there, so close by.

Dan Patch

Dan Patch was a harness racing horse, a pacer. He was crazy good, they said. 110 years ago, he was the best pacer ever seen. He was a Harness racing Dan Patch Breeder_and_sportsman_mag_1911_wikicommonshuge celebrity in the US, the first multi-million dollar sports superstar.

His story is told in Charles Leerhsen’s 2010 book Crazy Good. You will enjoy it even if you know nothing about harness racing. It’s a story of triumph over adversity, of middle America at the dawn of the automobile age, and of the hucksterism that Americans do so well.

Crazy Good: The true story of Dan Patch - Amazon link
Click for Amazon link

Dan Patch was born in Oxford, Indiana in 1896 to Zelica, a mare obscure in Standardbred breeding history. His sire, Joe Patchen, was well known for both his speed and his bad temper.

At birth, Dan Patch’s prospects seemed zero. His left rear leg was misshapen. His owner Dan Messner was advised to put him down. But he didn’t. For the history of harness racing, and for Dan Patch, that was a very wise decision. Dan Patch learned to walk, then run.

Dan was a natural. He loved to race and he loved audiences. As his star rose, other parties became interested in him. With a new owner, he went to the big time. That’s when the hucksterism started. Not by Dan Patch, who simply continued to run the very best he could, but by Marion W. Savage, his new owner. At Savage’s International Stock Food Company farm near Minneapolis, Dan Patch lived out the rest of his days. When he wasn’t travelling the country in his own rail car.

T-Eaton-Co- photo Dan_Patch_wikicommonsDan Patch never lost a race. Horse owners became unwilling to enter their horses against him. So Savage promoted exhibition races with Dan running only against the clock. Dan set a record in September 1906 at the Minnesota State Fair with a mile in 1:55. That time was not officially recognized because a windshield was used. Dan Patch’s official mile record was 1:55:¼ set in Lexington KY in 1905. His unofficial record was not matched until 1938 when Billy Direct paced a mile in 1:55. It wasn’t beaten until 1960.

Dan Patch Two Step (for piano)

Dan Patch coffee can from ctpost.com
from ctpost.com March 22 2012

Savage was an odd man, very successful at selling himself and products. However much he may or may not have known about horses, he knew a lot about marketing. And market Dan Patch, he did. Dan’s image and name were on livestock feed, tobacco, a railway and everything in between. He even gets a mention in The Music Man.

For horse people, Dan Patch didn’t need a front man. His talent spoke for itself. But Savage’s marketing of Dan and racing made both better known to a public much larger than harness racing fans.

Dan Patch died July 11, 1916. Marion W. Savage died one day later. By that time, harness racing had ceased being a major national sport.Dan-Patch-Line-MN-Bachman-farm workers load train car-wikicommons

If, like me, you’d like to do a pilgrimage to the homes of Dan Patch, check Dan Patch Historical Society in Savage MN for places and events. Also look for “Dan Patch Days” in Oxford IN.

I’ll Have Another

Barbaro-findagrave-17738583-J-GriffithThis was first posted on my St. Thomas Dog Blog, May 10, 2012. This Saturday, May 7th, it’s Derby Day again. It feels different this year – it’s the first anniversary of the beginning of American Pharoah’s successful run for the Triple Crown. It’s also the 10th anniversary of Barbaro’s Kentucky Derby win. Sadly, he was injured in the Preakness and he died Jan. 29th 2007. 

coffee mug from Kentucky Derby MuseumThe 1st Saturday in May, this is the mug I pour my first cup of coffee into.  Last Saturday, the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, I’ll Have Another came from the middle of the pack and passed the frontrunner. At 15-1 odds and in the 19th position, he wasn’t considered a serious contender.

His jockey, Mario Gutierrez, raced at Hastings Raceway in Vancouver, or as the announcer put it, “the small-time circuit up in Canada.”  It was Gutierrez’ first Derby ride.  I’ll Have Another’s owner, J. Paul Reddam, is originally from Windsor, Ont.  As a university student, he got interested in racing by hanging around Windsor Raceway.  Two racing lives honoured in the winner’s circle of the most I'll Have Another at finish line 2012 Kentucky Derbyprestigious race in North America, both nurtured on Canadian tracks.

Tracks that, at least in Ontario, face closure.  Premier McGuinty’s government decided that the long-standing profit-sharing agreement between tracks and the OLG would not be renewed.  Until now, OLG and the track shared the profits, with OLG getting the lion’s share.  Still, the 10% that the tracks get is crucial to their economic survival.  Slot machines and rooms that house them cost far less to maintain than do barns, tracks and horses.

All racetracks, including Churchill Downs, rely on slot machines and other forms of gambling for income.  When we toured Churchill Downs, our guide said the only day of the year on which the track 1907 Postcard of bookies at Woodbine Racetrack Torontoactually makes money from racing is Derby Day.

But the pride, prestige and history of Churchill Downs is in the racetrack and barns.  It is a tourism draw, with tours, gift shops and a museum.  Restaurants, motels and stores in Louisville also benefit from the dollars that come with these tourists who come to Horse Mecca and buy a commemorative mug.  Do non-gamblers make a special trip to tour a casino, other than in Las Vegas?

A racetrack is a huge operation, employing many in track and horse maintenance.  Also the breeders and trainers who spend years refining bloodlines and preparing juveniles for the track.  The stars are the horses and they are expensive to maintain.

Amazon link for Northern Dancer Legend and Legacy
Click for Amazon

Meanwhile in Ontario, racehorses are being sent for slaughter.  If the tracks don’t have the slot machines, they likely will close. There will be nowhere to race horses so breeders are getting out of the business.  That means getting rid of living horses.  It is said that newborn foals are being killed before they stand up – that way insurance will cover their “loss”.  Many of those thoroughbred foals and their mothers and fathers have the blood of the great Canadian Northern Dancer in their veins.

Thoroughbred and harness racing are part of our national history.  If Harness racing at Western Fair track London Ontario ca 1934profit sharing with slot machines keeps tracks alive, that also keeps alive our horses and our presence in the sport of kings.  McGuinty’s tinkering with what worked just fine for long before he became premier is now costing the lives of horses and livelihoods of horse people. (*see 2 comments below)

Breeders’ Cup

Saturday was Hallowe’en. A big day. This October 31st was a big day for another reason. The Breeders’ Cup Classic horse race and the chance to see something that’s never happened before. It happened.

breeders' cup classic pharoah-and-victorWire to wire and breaking the track record time, American Pharoah won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Therefore, he won the grand slam, the four most prestigious Thoroughbred races in North America. He is the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first who had the chance to add a fourth jewel. (Watch it here)

The Breeders’ Cup was started in 1984 by American horse breeders as a showcase for the sport and the bloodstock. Each year, on dirt and turf tracks, the best of the best compete. The Classic is for 3 year old and older horses. It’s a big end to the race meet and the season.

five-length-leadUnlike the Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup moves from track to track each year. This year, for the first time, it was held at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. In light of the history it made, that was especially nice. Keeneland is an old and prestigious track right in the middle of the blue grass and horse farm country.

Breeders cup celebration wave

After the Breeders’ Cup Classic

The day after the Breeders’ Cup, American Pharoah was trailered a few kilometres down the road to his new home, Ashford Stud at Coolmore Farms. It would have been a difficult day for the Zayats, saying goodbye to him.

He’s still their horse but they sold the breeding rights to Coolmore. It’s likely his stud fee will be about $200,000. That will go up or down, depending on what happens when his babies start racing. The fee for the services of Pioneerof the Nile, his dad, jumped way up to $120,000 after American Pharaoh won the Triple Crown. It was evidence of good genes being passed on. So now we wait to see if American Pharoah passes them to his offspring.

classic championI wish American Pharaoh a long and happy life. His name will be a distinguished one in the record books forever. He’ll have a special place in our hearts. A Triple Crown after 37 long years, when it seemed all but impossible. Then the cherry on top – the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But most of all for his heart and personality, for making it look so easy.

 

Ron and Secretariat

Last weekend, my dog and I went to Grand Falls/Grand-Sault in secretariat-and-ron-photo-d-stewartnorthern New Brunswick to see a statue unveiled. It is Ron Turcotte and Secretariat crossing the finish line at the Belmont Stakes in 1973 and thereby winning the Triple Crown.

As you cross the falls on the Ron Turcotte Bridge heading to the town’s centre, the statue is the first thing you see in the middle of the beautiful Broadway Boulevard. New Brunswick artist Yves Thériault made it, and it is magnificent.

In an article I read, M. Thériault said he wanted to convey the sense of turcotte-statue photo dorothy stewartthe race itself, that moment of victory. How can you do that in bronze, I wondered. He did it. The long narrow dirt-filled base is the track, with M. Turcotte’s career wins and awards engraved on the sides. Beside Secretariat, the finish line tower shows the time (2:24). Crouched over his neck, Ron Turcotte looks back to unseen horses, way way back.

The monument was under wraps of course, and the wrap was Secretariat’s blue and white checkerboard. The statue was unveiled secretariat-unveiling-photo-d-stewartby little kids dressed in The Meadow’s silks, complete with boots and helmets. During the removal of the cover, the actual race call played over loudspeakers. That was a truly inspired moment of theatre.

After unveiling the statue

Ron Turcotte, his wife Gaétane, children and grandchildren and his brothers and sisters were all there. Horse racing dignitaries were there, fans from all over Canada and the US and hometown people ron-and-leo-photo-d-stewartcelebrating their own local hero. A lovely message of congratulations from Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery was read out.

It was a party, with cake and plush-toy Secretariats. Everyone wanted to talk with M. Turcotte and have their picture taken with him. As he headed to the tent from the statue, he kindly stopped to allow me to take a photo of him with my dog.

In the tent, he signed autographs on small cards and large posters. He turcotte-signs-3-triple-crown-printsigned the glass of large framed prints. For me, he signed a photograph of another dog of ours standing beside the Secretariat statue at the Kentucky Horse Park. That made the day complete for me.

I stopped at the Falls on my way out of town. I couldn’t quite see the statue from there. Probably in winter, when there are no leaves on the trees, you’ll be able to. I didn’t stop at the town’s museum across the road, but I wish I had. M. Turcotte’s riding boots and goggles are on display.

motel-leo-photo-d-stewartLeo and I enjoyed our stay at the Motel Leo. Lovely people and a fine room. Merci, thank you.

See my Secretariat movie for the picture I had autographed and thoughts on the movie.

Also see my Turcotte, the movie for more on the excellent 2013 NFB film Secretariat’s Jockey about Ron Turcotte’s life and horse racing career.

American Pharoah

american pharoah in belmontSaturday, I saw something I’ve never seen before: the winning of the American Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. I hadn’t expected it to happen, but I hoped. American Pharoah made it look easy. It’s not.

He’s the 12th horse to win it in almost a century. The last time the triangular statue was handed to an owner was 1978. Thirteen times triple-crown-trophy-2015in the 37 years since, it’s sat in a secure storeroom at Belmont, waiting to be given to a potential winner, only to be put in storage again. The trio of 1970s winners were represented Saturday: Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery, Seattle Slew’s trainer William H. Turner Jr., and Affirmed’s jockey Steve Cauthen.

five-and-a-half-lengthsAmerican Pharoah is bred and owned by Zayat Stables. He will stand at stud at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud Farm in Kentucky. It will cost a lot to get one of his babies. Breeders are likely poring over his pedigree and those of their mares, trying to choose one with performance and conformation in her background that, with luck, will enhance and balance his.

unofficial-winnerBreed the best to the best, and hope for the best, is the rule of thumb. Getting the “superhorse” is the dream, and they’re one in a million – literally. Stats on NBC’s Belmont broadcast showed that, since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, 1.4 million Thoroughbred foals have been born.

American Pharoah Pedigree

American Pharoah was born February 2, 2012 to Pioneerof the Nile and Littleprincessemma. Look through his pedigree and you will see well-known names. On his sire’s side are Mr. Prospector, Northern Dancer and Bold Ruler, sire of Secretariat. On his dam’s side are Northern Dancer, Secretariat and Raise a Native.

Amer-Pharoah-pedigreeThe great Man o’ War is found in eleven of American Pharoah’s 16 great-great grandparents. Man o’ War could have, should have, been a member of the Triple Crown club. He won the Preakness and Belmont in 1920, but did not run in the Kentucky Derby. At the time those races were simply three of many, so whether to run or not had no great significance.

silks-belmont-parkBeing only five weeks apart with differing distances that test a horse’s ability, the three stakes races were first called the Triple Crown by a journalist in 1923. But they didn’t become that officially until 1930. That year, Gallant Fox won all three. Sir Barton in 1919 was the only other horse to have done so. Therefore, in 1947, ten years after his death, Sir Barton was included as the first Triple Crown winner. I’m sure that, had he run the Derby, Man o’ War would be in that select group.

 

Track Royalty

Entrance to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky DerbyThis coming Saturday, May 2nd, is the Run for the Roses, the first leg of the Triple Crown.  The 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. The young royals of mainly North American horses will be there. Both connections and horses dream of winning it and going on to win the other two jewels of American Thoroughbred racing.

No horse has done it since Affirmed in 1978. It’s the longest gap ever in Triple Crown history.  I didn’t see Secretariat’s spectacular runs in 1973, but I certainly knew about them. With three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, I thought it was something that would happen like clockwork every few years. Little did I know.

looking up at twin spires from seating areaChurchill Downs, even without horses there, is magical.  In the tunnel and trackside, you almost see the horses and jockeys. Inside the viewing salons, you feel the money and the excitement. In the betting lounges, the tension and hope for the big win and desperation over the big loss surrounds you.

What’s wrong

There’s a lot wrong with the horse racing industry, just as there is with any sport business that involves animals. Too many horses are bred in order to find that elusive ‘superhorse’. What happens to the foals that don’t make it to the track, and those that do Thoroughbred great Ferdinand racingmake it, but aren’t good enough for the big time?  What happens to those that are good enough but, like any athlete, get past their prime?

The great Ferdinand, 1986 Kentucky Derby and 1987 Breeder’s Cup Classic winner and 1987 Eclipse Horse of the Year, was slaughtered in a Japanese meat-packing plant in 2002 after his career at stud was deemed over. He earned over $3.75 million.  His reward was to become steaks and dogfood.

What’s right

There’s also a lot right. Running faster than the wind is in the blood and bones of a Thoroughbred. Most racing people love horses. They ought to. It’s the horses who run the race and win the glory and the money. The jockey, trainer, groom and exercise rider help the horse, but they are support staff. A jockey can cause a horse to lose a race, but he can’t make a horse win. It’s the horse’s mind and heart that runs the race. And that’s all the people need to remember. Look after Cat at Barbaro memorial stone, Kentucky Horse Park 2007the horse and the horse will look after you. And remember, when that horse no longer wins the big purses, that it was his or her effort that got you where you are.

That’s where owners, owner syndicates, trainers and jockeys can go wrong. They think it’s them – their handling, their business decisions that are key. People who believe in their own centrality in horse racing should instead invest in NASCAR or motorcycle racing. The thrill of speed and winning is the same, and it is solely your care and handling that makes a car or motorcycle win or lose. It might be cherished by you, but it’s inanimate. It will not feel anything if you junk it at the end of its career. If you’ve done well in horse racing, thank the horses that did it for you by treating them right in retirement.

Thoroughbred Retirement

In 2005 NY racing groups began the Ferdinand Fee, a voluntary $2 per race charge with girl petting horse at Old Friends Equine Retirement Farm 2007proceeds going to Thoroughbred retirement farms. Old Friends Equine Retirement Farm near Lexington is the only one that takes stallions. Because of their often-difficult personalities, they can be hard to handle. Most rescue and retirement farms are not equipped for them. Mares and geldings stand a better chance than stallions of having a good post-race life. (Updated from my St. Thomas Dog Blog, May 5, 2011.)

 

Cigar 1990-2014

Champion racehorse Cigar 2007 at Kentucky Horse ParkThe news from the Kentucky Horse Park that Cigar died Tuesday Oct. 7 made me look through photos I have of him.

After retiring in 1999, he lived in the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park. I met him there in December 2007. He was in his stall, watching a stablehand clean it. But when he saw he had visitors, well, over he came. Seeing my camera, he posed.  According to the woman looking after him, he loved putting on a show for the punters.  Outside in the paddock, he’d run and roll for the crowd standing along his fence.  Inside his stall, he’d do what he did with me, come right up and strike poses for as long as a camera clicked.

Cigar died during surgery to relieve his pain from osteoarthritis in his neck and spine. He was 24 years old. He earned nearly $10 million and 19 of his 33 starts. He tied the 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation’s record of 16 consecutive wins. His maternal grandsire was the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. His paternal great-grandsire was the great Northern Dancer. Twice voted Horse of the Year and Champion Older Male and inducted racehorse Cigar with stall door open Dec. 2007into the National Museum of Racing and the Hall of Fame, he lived up to the standards of his predecessors.

He thrilled racing fans at the track and, in retirement, he thrilled many more by giving of himself so cheerfully.  You were a gentleman, Cigar, and you will be missed.

He is buried at the Memorial Walk of Champions near his barn and the Horse Park says there will be a public memorial service at a later date.

Northern Dancer

There are some athletes so well known that, fan or not, you can place the name without thinking. Gordie Howe, Muhammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Northern Dancer.

Northern Dancer wins Preakness, great athletes50 years ago, the little Canadian Thoroughbred Northern Dancer won the Preakness. Two weeks earlier he’d won the Kentucky Derby, setting a record at 2 minutes broken only by Secretariat (1:59.40) in 1973 and Monarchos (1:59.97) in 2001. Three weeks after the Preakness, he finished third at the Belmont so his name is not on that very short list of Triple Crown winners. But his performance on the track made him famous, and a Canadian hero.

He won 14 of his 18 starts, had two seconds and two thirds. He retired due to injury after winning the 1964 Queen’s Plate. He then went on to make his real mark in history, as a sire. His name is in the pedigree of three-quarters of all Thoroughbreds alive today. Of the 635 foals he sired, 80% made it to the track, and 80% of those became Northern Dancer statue at Woodbine wikicommons 2008winners. His progeny also were impressive as sires and dams of great racehorses around the world.

His own breeding was excellent, sired by Neartic with Natalma, but he was a small horse, too small it seemed to be successful on the track. No bidders were interested when he was up for auction as a yearling. So owner and breeder E. P. Taylor, of Windfields Farm and founder of Argus Corporation, kept him. After he had made his abilities clear, Taylor turned down all offers to buy even a part interest in him. Northern Dancer repaid that loyalty, literally, with a stud fee of $1 million and plenty of takers. Northern Dancer lived at Windfields Farms in Oshawa and Maryland, where he died in 1990 at the age of 29. His body was returned to the Oshawa farm for burial.

click for Amazon link to Northern Dancer by Kevin Chong
Click for Amazon link


There are a lot of wonderful books about Northern Dancer and there’s a new one out. Written by Kevin Chong, Northern Dancer: The legendary horse that inspired a nation puts the horse’s story in the context of Canadian culture and collective consciousness in the 1960s. The country was finding its way as a nation, trying to form an identity separate from Great Britain and from the elephant beside us, as Pierre Trudeau called the US. Northern Dancer wasn’t just a phenomenal horse running in the most prestigious races in world, he was our phenomenal horse. And, looking at it the other way around, he wasn’t just a great Canadian horse, he was a great horse among the best of America’s horses.

Throughout Northern Dancer’s two-year-old season, New Brunswicker Ron Turcotte had Northern Dancer photo wikicommonsridden him. But when he went to the US, the horse’s connections wanted a known (read American) jockey. Bill Shoemaker first rode him, then switched to Hill Rise for the Triple Crown races. Newcomer Bill Hartack took over on Northern Dancer, beating Shoemaker and Hill Rise by a neck in the Kentucky Derby. Hartack remained the Dancer’s jockey. Ron Turcotte rode him one more time, for his retirement appearance at Woodbine.  Turcotte went on to become a household name himself. He rode Riva Ridge to victory in 1972’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes and, a year later, Secretariat to a Triple Crown.

Northern Dancer created “own the podium” decades before the slogan was test-marketed. His win in the Kentucky Derby was a moment of national pride and self-Northern Dancer Canada Post stamp 1999definition that lasted much longer than the two minutes he took to run the race.

Tomorrow, at Pimlico in Maryland, California Chrome will be trying to match what his great-great (and great)-granddaddy Northern Dancer did in 1964. All Californians, I’m sure, are proud of their home-bred Kentucky Derby winner. So too is this Canadian Northern Dancer fan.

Click to hear a great interview with Ron Turcotte and Kevin Chong on CBC’s The Current.  There is also an excellent post about Northern Dancer’s history and effect on Canada at The Vault: Horse racing past and present.

 

Turcotte, the movie

If you live in or are from New Brunswick, if you’re Canadian, if you like horseracing, the dvd cover Secretariat's Jockey Ron TurcotteNFB has a film for you:  Secretariat’s Jockey:  Ron Turcotte (2013).  In 1973 Mr. Turcotte, already well known in racing circles, became famous world wide as the man who rode Secretariat.

The Triple Crown has been won only eleven times since it was established as the pinnacle of Thoroughbred racing in America.  Never has a horse won it in such jaw-dropping style as Secretariat did.   And Ron Turcotte was on his back for all three rides.

As a young man in northern New Brunswick, Mr. Turcotte worked in the woods with his father and brothers.  With a downturn in that industry, he moved to Toronto in search of a job.  He had worked with horses at home and knew them well, and he was a small man.  Still, working as a jockey was a suggestion that came from someone sports illustrated cover 1973 with Secretariat and Ron Turcotteelse.  He tried it, liked it and found he was good at it.  Eventually he went to the big leagues, Kentucky.  He met Penny Chenery and her horses and the rest is wonderful horseracing history.

His riding career ended horribly in 1978 with a race accident that paralyzed him.  But he stayed associated with horseracing, not as the trainer that many said he would have been so good at, but as an ambassador for the sport and for jockeys.  He knows firsthand the physical, psychological and financial costs of such a risky occupation.  He knows the hard work of training, and the thrill of race days and wins.

He takes us on a road trip to Kentucky.  There we meet the other two jockeys of those five years of three Triple Crowns, Jean Cruguet (Seattle Slew 1977) and Steve Cauthen secretariat running the belmont stakes(1978 Affirmed). We go with him to Churchill Downs on Derby Day 2012.  We go on to Maryland, where Triple Crown talk is in the air when I’ll Have Another wins the second leg.  Then to New York and the dashing of hopes when I’ll Have Another is pulled from the Belmont Stakes due to the threat of laminitis.  The Triple Crown wait continues, a much longer dry stretch than even the 25 year one after Citation in 1948 that Secretariat and Ron Turcotte broke.

Ron Turcotte at Ron Turcotte Bridge Grand Falls NBWe go back home to Grand Falls, NB, driving over the magnificent falls on the “Ron Turcotte Bridge.” We meet his family and friends and go to his home.  Seeing the photographs, trophies and statues in his living room, I thought of the house of a man similar in many ways to Mr. Turcotte.

It is a small house near St. Thomas where the late Dale Dufty, a retired harness racing driver, lived.  I had the good fortune of Harness racing driver Dale Duftybuying a saddle from him.  Good fortune both because I really like the saddle and because I got to meet him.  His house was filled with awards, photos and memorabilia of his favourite horses.  He repaired and made tack and racing harness, usually while watching races on a specialty channel.   Like Mr. Turcotte, his love of horses and the sport of horse racing never disappeared. He too was happy to share his great knowledge of horses and tracks, owners and fellow drivers, great risks and great joy.

Click for Amazon link to The Will to Win book
If you want to learn more about Mr. Turcotte, he and Bill Heller wrote his life story in The Will to Win.  It is an excellent read. (click cover for Amazon link)