One year after he was paralyzed in a racing accident in 1978,
jockey Ron Turcotte returned to the forested land near his
childhood home in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, to begin his life
anew. He had hoped to stay around the sport he loved, as a
trainer in New York, but the pain of his injuries prevented him
from, as he puts it, "doing justice to the horses." In Canada he
first had a go at raising cattle, but the results were similar.
Then in 1986 Turcotte, who as a teenager had worked as a
lumberjack, returned to his arboreal roots and planted a
220-acre tree farm on his property near the tiny town of
Drummond. He now oversees a young crop of more than 260,000
trees, most of them the red pines used to make telephone polls.
"It doesn't require a lot of energy, but it keeps my mind busy,"
he says. "It'll be 20 years before we can harvest them. As long
as the price of lumber keeps going up, I won't be able to leave
my kids a better heritage."
Turcotte, 60, already possesses one of the most enduring
legacies in sports. In 17 years as a jockey he won 3,033 races
and earned more than $28 million in purse money, but he will be
remembered as the steadily rocking figure in blue and white
silks, jackknifed over Secretariat's mane, piloting the big red
colt to the 1973 Triple Crown. Secretariat's record times in the
Kentucky Derby and the Belmont still stand, and his 31-length
winning margin in the latter race is as hallowed a number to
railbirds as 56 is to baseball fans.
Although Turcotte will always be linked with Secretariat, a
filly named Flag of Leyte Gulf changed his life. On July 13,
1978, in the eighth race at Belmont, she fell after getting
bumped by another horse coming out of the starting gate, and
Turcotte went flying headfirst onto the track. The impact
cracked two vertebrae and crushed two more in his mid-back,
leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. "I don't dwell on
it," he says. "I woke up from my operation, and I had no
quarrels with anybody."
Since his farm has yet to bring in a single dollar, Turcotte and
his wife of 36 years, Gaetane, live on the money he made as a
jockey. The couple's four daughters are grown, but he has three
grandchildren to dote on. "I'm spending more than when I was
making money," he says. "I was cheap then--now I'm glad I was."
Turcotte misses horses and riding and keeps up with the sport
via television and the Daily Racing Form. "I have so many good
memories," he says. "I'm very lucky. Who could say he wasn't
proud to ride the greatest horse who ever lived?"
in 1973, Turcotte nearly lost it all in a 1978 spill.