If you live in or are from New Brunswick, if you’re Canadian, if you like horseracing, the NFB 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 else. He tried it, liked it and found he was good at it. Eventually he went to the big leagues – Kentucky. There 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 also knows the hard work of training, and the thrill of race days and wins.
Ron Turcotte takes us to the races
Mr. Turcotte 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 (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.
We 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.
Dale Dufty, harness racing driver
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 buying 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.
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)
The back cover of Dick Francis: A Racing Life, a biography by Graham Lord, calls it “warm, affectionate, yet sharp and perceptive.” I usually read the jacket information before starting a book. This time I didn’t. I’m glad because I know it didn’t skew my impressions of the book.
The only word of that description with which I would agree is “sharp.” I found the book sharp to the point of nasty and petty. The first page puts the thesis forth that Dick’s wife Mary probably wrote the novels. Throughout 373 pages of text, Lord jibes and pokes about it at every chance.
The argument is that Dick Francis did not like or do well in school and that Mary did. Dick quit school as soon as he could to become a horseman. Mary went on to university, gaining a degree in French and English. Lord illustrates with facts and speculation what he calls “the most amusing literary camouflage since Marian Evans pretended to be George Eliot.”
An apparent fact is that Dick repeatedly said that Mary should be named as co-author. But Mary and the publishers thought the books were more marketable under the name of a champion jockey. Lord does paint a picture of the personalities of both Dick and Mary. What I take from his portrayal of Dick is of an unassuming man who was honest as a jockey and in all other aspects of his life. The impression of Mary that I gained from Lord is that, as they say, she wasn’t backward about putting herself forward.
Mary Francis – Researcher or writer?
There has never been any hiding of the fact that Mary did much of the research for the books. In Lord’s book, I learned that she turned many of the novels’ subjects into businesses or avocations for herself. She became a pilot and ran an air taxi service, she bought into a wine importing business and she took up photography to the professional level. All this was to better research Dick Francis books. With the literary aspirations that Lord says she had, I am amazed that she did not claim the credit for them if she believed herself to be the sole or major author.
Lord says that the physical afflictions suffered by characters are those suffered by Mary, not Dick. She had polio as a young woman, so does a character. She suffered from asthma, so does a character. Literary allusions are ones that would only be known to Mary with her education, not Dick with his. The portrayal of the male heroes and the female characters seem to be written more from a woman’s perspective than a man’s. It is Mary’s sensibilities, interests and afflictions that fuel the books, Lord says.
Racing and horses are central
Ok, but I would argue that those are story elements attainable through good research and from drawing on experiences of others. At the heart of Dick Francis novels is racing and horses. You are riding in the Grand National with the book’s hero. You know the horses as sentient beings through the eyes of jockeys or grooms. And that is not Mary’s experience. She didn’t particularly like horses or racing. And physical afflictions? The descriptions of broken collarbones and dislocated shoulders are from Dick’s experience.
Lord is disparaging toward Dick about his respect for the Royal Family. As an example of what he sees as Dick’s fawning, he says that Dick asked the Queen Mother’s permission before entitling his autobiography The Sport of Queens. Why, Lord asks, should Dick think it necessary to ask permission to use that phrase? Perhaps because the phrase is actually The Sport of Kings? By changing it to Queens, Francis was making direct reference to his riding career. At that time there were two Queens and no King. As well, he rode for the Queen Mother. Perhaps he was just being polite.
Graham Lord makes much of Dick saying that writing was hard for him. Hard to believe, Lord says. Maybe, but I’ve read more interviews with best-selling authors about the difficulty of writing than those saying oh, it’s a snap. There’s also cringe-making recitations of interviews with Francis by writers for literary journals where Dick could not discuss concepts of formalism or semiotics in literature. Oh, for heaven’s sakes, not being au courant with literary analyses is hardly proof that someone can’t put pen to paper and write a good story.
Before and after reading Lord’s book, I did not think that Dick wrote the books entirely on his own. Why wouldn’t Mary contribute, edit, add her own words? Especially with their long symbiotic marriage, it seems they became almost inseparable. Their son Felix also became part of the writing machine. But at the core of all Dick Francis books are horses, racing and jockeys. Neither Mary nor Felix lived in that world. Dick did.
Graham Lord better on James Herriot
In 1997, two years before A Racing Life, Graham Lord published James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet – the “warm but incisive” biography its cover promised. Dick Francis: A racing life is not. At 262 pages, his Herriot biography is the length A Racing Life would be if Lord cut out the waffle. That would be most of the first three chapters and the long descriptive word lists throughout. I began skimming very early.
If you had the sad job of picking the topic of the last novel you would write, I don’t think you could choose better than Dick Francis did. Crossfire, co-written with son Felix and published in 2010 by Michael Joseph, is the final book in his long and illustrious career as a mystery novelist. Dick Francis died in 2010 at the age of 89.
Crossfire is a great story and a family effort. You don’t need to google anything to know the experiences of three generations of the family are in it. The horses, stables, races and racing industry amongst which Dick Francis lived are there, as usual. But our hero is a wounded Captain in the Grenadier Guards, recently returned from Afghanistan.
The authors’ thanks are given to Lieut. William Francis, Army Air Corps and Grenadier Guards, for his assistance. He is the grandson of Dick and son of Felix. So the horse and racing elements of a Dick Francis are there, as is information and insights about a different topic. This time, that other topic is the Afghanistan war and the physical and psychological realities of being injured by an explosive device. You see the trauma of being back home but having to deal with the injury and the sudden loss of your career and your passion – soldiering.
Dick Francis and family
The book is a tribute to Lieut. Francis and his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere in war. It is also a tribute to Felix for carrying on his father’s work so well. And, of course, it’s a tribute to Dick Francis, master storyteller and steeplechase jockey. In his racing and writing, he has probably taught more people about the intricacies of horseracing than anyone else. And no matter what the villains of the piece do, the love Francis has for horses and his respect for their abilities and heart is always apparent.
Dick Francis’ books were written with the help of his family. His late wife, Mary, helped with research, writing and editing. Her interests and knowledge, such as in photography, were also reflected in the plots of some of his books. Felix, their younger son, helped his father with many of the books, taking an increasingly active part in the creation of the latter ones. The last three Dick Francis books are published with both Dick and Felix as co-authors.
After his father’s death, Felix has continued writing under his own name. I have not read his solo efforts yet but, based on the co-authored books, he learned well from his father. And with Crossfire, I feel I have got to know the family better. I am glad that they let me see the post-war feelings of a wounded veteran. They did it with a deft touch, put in here and there in a very good story of chicanery in the racing and investment businesses.
It’s been quite a four days – perhaps best summarized with The Hat. Everybody’s had a go at this new game. Friday was the birth of The Hat.
Friday was a bank holiday in the UK so that everyone could watch The Royal Wedding. Millions of us elsewhere also watched. The Hat made its first appearance.
But while we were watching the fairy tale wedding, in the White House other events were being watched. Friday, so we learned, was also the culmination of 10 years of The Hunt for Osama bin Laden. The Hat was there, helping.
Also on Friday, Patrick Chan won gold at the World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow – hurray Patrick, hurray Canada. (no hat)
Sunday, Celebrity Apprentice was pre-empted in the last few critical moments (would Nene pleasepleaseplease be fired? No – she wasn’t, ohno!) The Hat should have been there – this is its natural habitat. Some of the outfits worn by these “celebrity” women would fit right in those worn by the Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice.
Why did President Obama interrupt The Donald? Osama bin Laden had been killed by US troops. Before this news was made public, The Hat had already found its way to bin Laden’s head.
Monday, Canada’s election produced an odd result. A Conservative majority with (for the first time ever) the NDP as official Opposition. The Liberals and the Bloc were pretty much wiped off the political map. Gilles Duceppe said his goodbyes to his party Monday evening, Michael Ignatieff waited until Tuesday morning. The Hat talked him into it.
And coming up on Saturday, hats will be big in Louisville. It’s the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby. Having done my bit at photoshopping The Hat, I’m definitely rooting for Brilliant Speed who kindly loaned me his head.
The Hat on Princess Beatrice is an AP photo from Friday’s wedding. The Hat on Michael Ignatieff was done by Jim Stewart. The others of The Hat are from Facebook. The photo of Patrick Chan is by AP and the boardroom photo of Team ASAP is from buddytv.
Every day I gave .6 bowl of kibble to shelter animals and 10 pieces of kibble to other shelter dogs and 10 pieces to cats. I had 2 foster dogs and 2 foster cats that I fed, walked and patted every day. These were my virtual fosters and feedings. I clicked to help every cause I could. Waking up my computer meant first doing my clicking duties. Going on Facebook meant ensuring my virtual fosters on Save a Dog and Save a Cat were taken care of.
Now I’ve lost those dogs and cats. I got too busy to go on Facebook and my animals disappeared. I feel horrible about it, but I can’t commit to them again. I can’t promise them that I will log in and click every day for them. I don’t always click every day on the Animal Rescue Site(and the attached Literacy Site, Rainforest Site etc.). Sometimes I forget to answer the trivia question on freekibblefor dogs and cats.
What put me over the edge was when I entered a new realm of giving by clicking. The Pepsi Refresh site gives money for good causes and projects, both in the US and Canada. I spent a considerable amount of time choosing my Canadian projects and then diligently clicked every day. When I started feeling overburdened by clicking duty, I happened to see an ad on tv for an insurance company or credit card company. I can’t remember what it was – maybe I’ve blocked it from my mind to protect myself. You can support their worthy causes by signing up and clicking every day. No!!! No more!
So my backsliding started. I forgot to click the easy ones, Animal Rescue Site and freekibble, a couple days in a row. Then I didn’t go on Facebook for, like, a week. Next time I logged in and went to Save a Dog and Save a Cat apps, my foster animals had disappeared. Not just expired and easily renewed – but the message reading “you currently have no fosters”. I searched the database and found them again, and diligently clicked for a week or so. Then something else came up and I didn’t log in. I lost them again. This time, I haven’t gone back. I’m not a responsible virtual pet parent.
I let my Pepsi Refresh causes win or lose without my help. I try to remember to click the Animal Rescue Site and its affiliates. I enjoy the trivia questions on freekibble so try to do it every day. I still use Goodsearchas my search engine and raise a penny per search for Old Friends Equine Retirementfarm in Georgetown, KY. But that’s as much as I can do. I am a click burn-out.
The thing that annoyed me most about the movie Secretariat was that the horses playing him were not in the credits. In particular, the one who played him in close-ups was superb – playing to the camera, acting the ham. Just like the real Big Red, so those who knew him say. I hope I will learn his and the others’ names and more about them on the dvd.
Ok, that’s my criticism. Other than that, I loved the movie. It’s the story of Secretariat’s fabulous 1973 Triple Crown win, and the story of his owner Penny Chenery Tweedy. Now, I’m a Man o’ War girl when it comes to that important question – who was the greatest racehorse of the 20th century? It’s not a decision based on any real knowledge of thoroughbred racing, just that he was the first racehorse I knew anything about. I had a put-together model kit of him when I was a kid, and it caused me to find a book about him in the library. And, even if you’re in the Secretariat “greatest horse” camp, you can’t deny the magnificence of Man o’ War, the original “Big Red”. His stride, as marked out at the Kentucky Horse Park, is still the longest of any known horse, including Secretariat.
The 1973 Belmont
But that win by 31 lengths! Nothing has ever been seen like that. I didn’t see the actual race. I was living outside North America and didn’t have a tv set. I’ve watched replays since but, thrilling as even that is, I cannot imagine what it felt like to actually see the race not knowing what the outcome would be. By 1978, after Seattle Slew and Affirmed won back-to-back Triple Crowns, I felt that having a Triple Crown was pretty exciting but not particularly unusual. I never imagined that it would not be done again for so many years. No horse, before or since, has won even one of the individual races that make up the Triple Crown in such a spectacular fashion. Especially the Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three. Watching him is like watching a horse fly. It’s magic and majesty and pure joy.
The sheer magnificence of Secretariat is why I didn’t find jarring the overvoice of a passage from the Book of Job at the movie’s beginning and end. Such beauty and strength as a horse possesses calls up reverential words and imagery. The solemnity and beauty of the words fit the magnificence of the animal, one of the most beautiful in creation.
After seeing the movie, I checked online reviews. My interpretation of the use of the Book of Job is at variance with most of those I read. Quite a big deal was made of the fact that director Randall Wallace is an outspoken Christian. I did not know that going in so it didn’t influence my viewing of the movie.
Oh Happy Day
Two other scenes of the movie are focused upon as evidence of the Christian message of the director and/or Disney Studio. The choice of Oh Happy Day, as music coming from the stable radio, and as the horses are coming down the final stretch in the Belmont. The first time, when it’s coming from the stable radio, I just heard it as a popular song by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and fitting when everybody in the scene was happy and feeling good about Secretariat and his prospects. The second use of it, in the ultimate race, I found distracting just because it was loud and I’d have rather just heard the hooves pounding on the track. Music accompanying that beautiful sound is gilding the lily. Not necessary, not an improvement.
Two reviews stood out for me. One is by Steve Haskin in Bloodhorse Magazine. This is a fair and insightful review both about the movie and the story of Secretariat and his connections. He points out a number of inaccuracies and glossovers of actual fact. One he doesn’t mention is that the coin toss which decided Secretariat’s ownership was actually more complicated and dramatic. To save movie time, I suppose, it was abbreviated. Still tense with drama, but if you want to read the real story, look for The Secretariat Factor by Tom Kiernan (Doubleday 1979). That’s where I read it, but I’m sure it’s also told in other books.
The second review is by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon. He says that he wanted his review to be provocative and well, yes, it is. His reading of Secretariat is as “Tea Party-flavored” propaganda for a mythical American past when all was well. For this, he holds the director and Disney responsible for perpetuating the myths of nostalgia and inaccurate simplification. That, I believe, is hardly news. O’Hehir for sure has read Critical Theory and wanted to be sure that we all knew he had. The argument is along the lines that popular culture is a particularly effective way to create political or ideological propaganda because the consumers are entertained primarily and therefore unaware that they are being fed propaganda. Ok.
Can you, as does O’Hehir, read Secretariat as Christian right wing propaganda? Of course. Just as you can read iconoclast comic Dennis Leary’s tv drama Rescue Me as anti-Muslim propaganda. Everyone in North America developed a heightened pride in and respect for police officers and firefighters after 9/11. Leary became a well-known advocate for firefighters in thanks to them for their efforts after that tragedy. The tragedy was caused by anti-American extremists – Muslim extremists. So do the math the same way, and you can consider Rescue Me propaganda just as easily as you can consider Secretariat right-wing Christian propaganda.
The movie Secretariat and real-life
O’Hehir argues that the movie’s negligible mention of the social and political upheaval in early 70s America is evidence of its propaganda/mythologizing of the past. Maybe it is. Maybe, too, those events didn’t directly affect the lives of the people whose story this is except through the schoolgirl political activism that is shown. Like O’Hehir, I lived through that time period, but my conclusions on the inclusion of sociopolitical context differ from his. I don’t think you need to cram in historical context just because it exists. Not if it doesn’t fit with your characters’ story.
As a teenager at that time, I was aware of what was happening in the US. I was active about it at about the same level of political acuity as Mrs. Tweedy’s daughter. My social concern got about the same kind of attention from my parents as did hers. It wasn’t that my family was living in a rarefied zone of privilege and wealth.Nor were they unaware of political and social events. It was that they had their hands full just getting on with their own lives without worrying about other people and cerebral political notions.
I think perhaps the same thing would have been true for the Tweedy-Chenery family. It may not be any more complicated than that. Mrs. Tweedy was a housewife with four kids and ailing parents. She had enough on her plate. If I asked my mother, I think I’d get the same answer.
A story of horses
Anyway, I loved the movie Secretariat. Steve Haskin said that the actor horses didn’t “capture the majesty and physical presence” of Secretariat but that there “isn’t a horse alive who could’ve done justice to him”. Secretariat is a feel-good story with a happy ending (except, of course, for Secretariat’s main competitor, the magnificent Sham, who made him run the race he did). And Secretariat’s story is not told in its totality in the movie. How could it be? What is told, however, is worth watching – and cheering and crying.
A few years ago, I got involved in finding homes for two Standardbred ex-racehorses whose owner had died. Neither were broke for saddle, they were getting up in years and they’d been together for most of their lives, so finding a home wasn’t going to be easy. As it happened, we did find a home for both of them as companion horses in a small herd. But in the course of all this, I learned a couple things about horses and people.
One thing was beware of meat buyers. Not knowing any better, we advertised them as “free to a good home”. Their eventual new person and others told us “list them for sale at least at their dollar value as meat”. Unfortunately, there is a market for horses to be sold for meat and “free to a good home” just means more profit for horsemeat brokers.
While thinking about how to find a good home for these two lovely horses, one day in Aylmer, I saw a horse and buggy on the road. Aha, I thought, there’s the answer! What could be better for a Standardbred than life on a Mennonite farm! A job for the horses without having to race, without having to get used to a saddle and rider, a job of value where they would be respected as important members of a way of life. If anyone would treat animals well, I thought, it would be Old Order Mennonites. So I was thinking about how to find out if anyone in the Old Order colony near Aylmer wanted a couple of horses.
Sulky to buggy?
Then I began hearing the second thing I learned. Every horse person I knew said, without my asking, “whatever you do, don’t let them go to the Mennonites”. This truly surprised me. At first, I thought it was individual xenophobic distrust, prejudice against the “different”. But too many people said it, including people I thought of as fair and unbiased. I started asking more questions. I was told some Mennonites – some said the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – were ok and treated their horses well. But, people told me, too many others do not care for them properly.
Instead, horses are regarded as pieces of equipment that you use up and replace when worn out. To explain it, especially in a case of free or cheap horses, people made comparisons to the old ‘beater’ cars that many of us have, where you don’t bother spending money fixing them, just drive them until they die and buy another old cheap one. That, I was told, was the attitude of many Mennonites to their horses.
The objection these people had was not that the horses were used for work, it was that they were not cared for properly. In the words of one horseman, “the horses are run hard and put in the barn wet.” That is a good way to get a sick horse, and something no responsible horse person would ever do. I still find it hard to believe that anyone who relies on horsepower wouldn’t treat that horse well. It’s in their own self-interest to do so.
I see the horses and buggies in the parking lots of Aylmer stores, in shade if shade is available. Along #73 Highway and the sideroads near Aylmer I see them trot. I watch draft horses pulling plows in Mennonite fields. I look at the horses turned out to pasture at well-tended Mennonite farms. And I wonder.
I see puppies and kittens at Mennonite stalls at the local farmers’ market. They are all breeds and types, but they all look healthy and well-cared for. I’ve never asked “how do you treat your horses, do you run a puppy mill?” How do you ask that?
Mistreatment of animals doesn’t stop with horses, I was told. Many of the small scale puppy mill operations here are in Mennonite areas. I started paying closer attention to the Dogs for Sale ads in the paper. Yep, “no Sunday calls” and a phone number with an extension – something found where one central phone services an entire community.
I read in One Nation Under Dog about Amish dog breeders in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Author Michael Schaffer seems to have the same dilemma as I do about this. He writes that, for the Mennonite farmer, dog breeding provided a new livestock market or crop when small scale farming was being battered by agribusiness and coming out on the losing side of economies of scale. But the dogs are being raised as livestock outside in barns and cages, even though the intended ‘market’ for them is the inside of homes with dogbeds and squeaky toys.
Rehoming a Standardbred
There are a lot of Standardbred racehorses in South Western Ontario. Thousands of them never make it to the track or retire every year. They still have a long life ahead of them. They need homes. Old Order Mennonites need horses for transportation. Trotters and pacers are ideal. It seems like a match made in heaven.
But the horse people I talked to, harness racing people and others, all said they would not send a Standardbred or any horse to a Mennonite farm. I was saddened by this, and felt disillusioned about the ideal of Mennonite life I’ve always imagined: of people and animals united by a fundamental connection with nature lost to most of us in the modern world, and a spiritual injunction to care for all God’s creatures.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, family history, Coronation Street, etc.