THE TWO-DOLLAR BETTOR'S BEST FRIEND
Ron Turcotte, the farm boy from New Brunswick, is one of North America’s great jockeys. It’s about time everybody knew it
The perspective takes over completely. Ron Turcotte could be appearing in some special production of Little Men. He and everyone else is around five feet high, he a few inches more, some an inch or so less. Everyone is slim, trim, thin, hard, even gaunt. Most are swarthy, with afros or George Raft patent leather hair, dark sideburns. They speak Spanish or English with a definite Central or South American accent.
In the middle of the day they wear bathrobes, like movie extras awaiting a call, or T-shirts, as if they were lead-swinging kitchen boys. Their pants are uniformly white, shiny plastic coating fibres. Their boots are black or dark brown, with the tops a rusty brown. They move in and out of showers, in and out of sweatboxes. They find it impossible to pass a scale without stepping on. The lucky ones drink cokes and munch sandwiches, chocolate bars, the odd hamburger. The others sip black coffee. And look very sullen. The clerk of scales, a man of ordinary size, passes among them, and, in an instant, turns into Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
One of them is quite fair, his hair light, almost curly. He smiles shyly, or keeps his face in a slight frown. He dresses, looks, speaks and acts like what he is, and what he calls himself, a Canadian farm boy. We’ve all seen a hundred, maybe a thousand small tough Canadian farm people just like him in every farm community from Newfoundland to British Columbia. Yet, look for his particular talent from New Brunswick around the world up and sideways and back, and you’ll not find it. This Canadian farm boy has earned $200,000 annually the past two years. And will do it again this year.
In any other trade, such success would make for a Horatio Alger story. In Ron Turcotte’s racing trade the Horatio Alger tale is almost instantly reversible. A rider might win the Queen’s Plate, the Ascot Gold Cup, the Epsom Derby, the American Triple Crown, and yet let him lose a couple of $100,000 stakes races on horses supposedly shoo-ins, and his Cadillacs turn pumpkins, his thoroughbreds mice.
Most Canadians are probably familiar with the Turcotte legend, how this small band of 14 people — mother, father, nine sons, three daughters — suffered the scrabbly life in Drummond and Grand Falls, NB. How Ron was a school dropout at 13, and worked cutting lumber till he was 18. Snow in 1959 shut New Brunswick up white and quiet, including the lumber camps. So Ron took off, for Toronto and a construction job. But in Toronto the construction industry was tied up by a strike. His landlord suggested Ron’s size was suitable for the jockey trade. Ron ultimately got a job walking horses. A year later he was working them, and finally riding. In 1962 he was leading Canadian rider; the year after, Canada’s leading rider. That September he was the top jockey at Laurel Race Track in Maryland; the following August he broke into the big time at Saratoga in the upper reaches of New York State.
The way up followed. But Ron Turcotte’s Horatio Alger tale lacked something. Where was his flash, his sports cars, his way with the broads, his cases of champagne for the press, his big parties? Now Eddie Belmonte — there was a jock who not only rode winners but dressed like a guy that rode winners. Who can make copy out of a Canadian kid in a lousy T-shirt and jeans? Who can see his sideburns? And his hair like some lousy army recruit! See, fans, how Eddie Belmonte dresses on Belmont Stakes day — a green and pink flowered brocade suit with knee-length jacket, a bright pink shirt ruffled at the throat and at the cuffs, a leather thong around his neck, with a great big carved wooden peace symbol. So who has to win on Riva Ridge, Ron Turcotte! If Eddie Belmonte — or Braulio Baeza or Willie Shoemaker or Angel Cordero Jr. or Laffit Pincay Jr. or Jacinto Vasquez or Jorge Velasquez — had been on Riva Ridge, and won, undoubtedly when Riva Ridge’s picture appeared in the American issue of The Daily Racing Form the following Monday, someone would have put the jockey’s name in with the horse’s. Nobody bothered to do that for the Canadian kid, Ron Turcotte. His picture rarely appears in the racing papers for U.S. tracks. His name doesn’t pop up in the newsy notes turf writers compile.
For example, Turcotte won on Riva Ridge in the Blue Grass Stakes several weeks before the Kentucky Derby. One had to look hard to find his name in the racing sheet stories, and in the New York papers too! A few days later jockey Ray Broussard flew to Kentucky to work Riva Ridge and his picture — with his name! — appeared on the front page of The Daily Racing Form.
In the press rooms the turf writers are full of jockey stories, but Turcotte’s name almost never comes up. They don’t look for him in a race. Several of them call him Turcotty — if Belmonte’s e is sounded, why not everybody’s? When Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby it was the horse and its owner and its trainer the papers gave space to. When Riva Ridge won the Belmont it was a horse story again. The early editions of The New York Times had the incredible headline RIVA RIDGE FIRST TO FINISH IN BELMONT.
Yet Ron Turcotte isn’t the first Canadian jockey to make it in the big time. Ted Atkinson, Georgie Woolf and the great Johnny Longden were there before him. But Turcotte is different because he hasn’t played the Big-time Jock game. “We’re farm people,” he says simply. And means it.
The Kentucky Derby seems to be the one race every owner and trainer and jockey wants to win at least once. Named the Two-Year-Old of 1971, Riva Ridge early last fall was being called the first Triple-Crown winner since Citation (in 1948).
Derby Day, May 6, was all Riva Ridge’s, and part Ron Turcotte’s. Louisville, Kentucky, is a one-act city tuned to the Derby. Hotels, motels, rooming houses charge abominably high rates for any fraction of the Derby Week stay. Hookers convene from miles around, with pickpockets, and breaking-and-entering specialists who do business while the Derby is being run. Con men of all kinds have a grassy graze. The U.S. cigarette companies took command of the town, their all-year replacement for the television advertising blackout. One brand ran the inevitable nostalgia night, the other set youth snares at a rock concert, and a “Chuckwagon Breakfast” Derby Day bowed to colonel-y Kentucky by adding local grits to the far-west’s flapjacks.
Derby Day, Louisville, looked much like the Easter encampments at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Churchill Downs infield was packed by eightthirty in the morning with counter-cultures countering and clashing. On spread-out sheets spaced-out communeniks frazzled in the hot sun or crawled about in search of no-show shade. Two blankets over, a fraternity bunch drank beer and chortled old Glenn Miller tunes as younger folk trippingly passed around the communal joint and prepared to see a Derby of pterodactyls in various-colored silks. Not that plain mom and pop were missing from the infield picnic scene; the vast majority were good clean white-race-loving folks.
National guardsmen and cops were everywhere, and black drill teams with white commanders. High school bands filled an infield area, one all white, another all black, and a third mostly white but with a few black trumpeters to shine up the brass.
By ten o’clock any man who was a man was drunk, or despairing. One Montreal journalist held a julep in each hand and sweetly wept at the thought of the bands playing My Old Kentucky Home. Since the band didn’t do that till five in the afternoon one must draw a veil over what that poor bastard looked like by, say, two!
Advance betting on the Derby was heavy. The day’s take, the Downs’ publicity men guessed, would come from 125,000 or more givers (130,000 plus was the actual attendance record set that day). Seven million dollars would be bet this May 6, more than $500,000 of it on Riva Ridge’s nose.
Post time for the first race was 11.30 a.m., because the Derby, like an oldtime stripper, believed in making ’em wait.
And drink. And eat. And, of course, bet. The bands soured out Jesus Christ Superstar and Age Of Aquarius still warm after numberless half-time servings at high-school and college football games. Pom-pom girls sweated out their county audibles, one-two-three, once to this side, once to that, bump asexually, turn, wiggle the fanny asexually, turn back, repeat asexually, keep grinning.
By noon, the communes, the sororities and the fraternities were being infiltrated — by Scientologists, by Jesus Freaks, by a stray shaved-head Hare Krishna chanter. Several fast-moving dealers with their backs only half-turned to the local police and soldiery peddled pot as if it were popcorn, while barechested college boys lay on their blankets and bayed for beer. Behind me the Montreal guy was quietly sobbing.
“The whole goddam thing,” he says, “look at it — the whole bloody thing — Mickey Mouse — there never was such Mickey Mouse nowhere. Fourteen years in a row I’ve come here, every year swearing This is the ever-lovin’ last.’ But man, when they start playing . . .”
At 5.30 Ron Turcotte came out on Riva Ridge, the Meadow Stable silks glowing a checkerboard silvery white and royal blue. Riva Ridge wore a devil’s red 7 on its black saddlecloth, Turcotte straight up in the saddle to let the horse lope easily, then faster. He ran it about half a mile, then dropped into a walk. Talking to the outrider he moved close to the shade trees lining the fence. He took his time: Riva Ridge had the number nine post position in the mileand-a-quarter race.
Months ago Turcotte had made his commitment to Riva Ridge; he could have had the mount on his favorite female horse, Shuvee, running her last race the same day two-year-old Riva Ridge was going. He chose Riva Ridge, and Mike Freeman, Shuvee’s trainer, understood. Of all the great horses Turcotte had ridden, which would he not have passed over to go with Riva Ridge? Northern Dancer, Tom Rolfe, Damascus, One for All, Fanfreluche, Vent du Nord, Gladwin, a good thousand others? Tom Rolfe, before Riva Ridge, had been his favorite — on Tom Rolfe Turcotte was third in the 1965 Derby, first in the Preakness, second in the Belmont. Most of Kentucky believed Riva Ridge would run first in all three.
To comfort the believers Turcotte broke from the gate on top of the field, beat the rail horses to the first turn, in front by a length and a half, moving easy, with Hold Your Peace close up behind, the space between them a solid fixed barrier. Once Hold Your Peace feinted at Riva Ridge, but Turcotte wasn’t having it. Then again. On the third try, as Hold Your Peace started its move, Turcotte looked back over his shoulder, gave a tug, and Riva Ridge took off. Hold Your Peace fell back immediately — as the form charts say, “disposed of.” Into the stretch No Le Hace came skidding around the turn like a kid after his missed bus. By the time he righted himself the race was over. Kentucky — and most of the other racing people on the continent — believed they had watched a cinch Triple-Crown winner at work.
In the press room after the race Mrs. John Tweedy — “Penny” to her racing friends — appeared in a silver-whiteand-royal blue polka-dot dress to match her Meadow Stable silks. Like a good happy horsewoman, she toasted the press with a silver stirrup cup minty with julep; beside her Riva Ridge’s trainer, Quebec’s Lucien Laurin, beamed, looking like the happy rich uncle on a French network TV serial. Winners gleam on the tip of the iceberg while losers glubglub in the watery death climes down below. Of Turcotte Laurin said, “He’s a pretty good race rider. I think he did a wonderful job. Nobody else will take the lead so my rider use his judgment and take over.” Turcotte himself appeared, greeted by an old admirer, Chick Lang, Pimlico general manager, host for the Preakness to be run 14 days later.
“A helluva race, Ron,” Lang said.
“There’s the most underrated jock in the business,” Lang said to me, his arm around Turcotte’s shoulders. “He’s the most dedicated friend the two-dollar bettor has.”
Those two-dollar bettors gathered the following Monday to applaud Turcotte’s big win: so in his first race after the Derby, Ron rewarded their faith by winning on a long shot named Regatta!
Two weeks later came the Preakness; on the Friday before Preakness Day, Turcotte rode an amazing race. His mount was Rokeby Stable’s Summer Guest, Key To The Mint’s stablemate, in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. Elliott Burch, the horse’s trainer, had told me he never knew “what the hell Summer Guest was going to do.” At the start, Summer Guest suddenly reared, smacked against the gate coming out, and was left far behind the field. Another jockey might have given up, or, more likely, smashed at his horse to get her up to the pack. Turcotte did neither. Up off the saddle, as if placed second or third, he slowly closed the space between his horse and the field. With a quarter mile to go he caught up, picked an opening and powdered through — winner by four lengths!
“He’s a great great rider,” Burch said.
Burch made the comment at the Preakness press party the night before the Preakness itself. Mrs. Tweedy and Lucien Laurin had spent that morning in front of Riva Ridge’s stall, answering the predictable questions with well-anticipated vaguenesses. But charmingly. The sun shone. Maryland mockingbirds vied with Baltimore orioles in the shade trees in front of the stables.
But during the evening, while the press party was still swinging, rain began to fall. It fell on Pimlico Race Track but, more to the point, fell where vengeance slated it to fall, on a Baltimore “Salute to Agnew” show featuring hawky Old Schoolsmarms like Bob Hope and Frankie Sinatra come to honor Spiro for his unique contributions to America’s decline and fall. Frankie Avalon was there, and Chuck Connors, and other mind-numbers. Maryland, as the state that sent Agnew against the nation, had much to answer for. Rain not only attended the Hope cheap-shot mass but fell hard on Pimlico. At eight in the evening pools were forming on the track, at midnight all of Baltimore was solid mist. Sheltered from the rain, Mrs. Tweedy and her party were understandably gay, and confident. By six in the morning arks were in order. By noon Pimlico racetrack was officially rated “sloppy” but a more accurate descriptive term would have been “soup,” “oozing,” “mushy,” or “emulsion.”
In contrast to the Derby’s masses, Pimlico’s infield crowd was all but wiped out. The official attendance was given out as 48,000: it looked more like 35,000. Rain churned up a gooey taffycolored strip of track pocked with pools and puddles. Between races a few hardy souls passed over the track between the infield and the stands. A few shoes got stuck in the muck. The descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh carried their ladies high in their arms, thighs and other roundness flashing. The first redcoated outriders out on the track sprayed water with each hoofbeat.
In retrospect the coming disaster for Riva Ridge was clearly prefigured. Most of the horses who won the prePreakness races had run at Pimlico, or their jockeys were Pimlico regulars. The pattern was set early — get out in front and spray the rest of the field into muddy submission. The rail, usually a preferred spot in short races, rippled like a canal. Only the 3-4-5 slots looked at all passable. Everything on the outside was welling up instant watery graves for losers. In the seventh race a horse called Smokey Johnny skidded close to the rail, tried to duck away, skidded again, and threw its rider. Falling it broke its foreleg and had to be destroyed. It stood in the lightly falling rain waiting for the horse van to take it away, its foreleg dangling. It screamed a terrifying neigh as the van loaded it in. That sound was still in the air as the horses came out on the track for the Preakness.
Mist sifted down from the grey sky, the riders on the lead horses were wrapped in yellow or orange oilskin slickers, jockeys hunched over their mounts, chilled, clearly unhappy with the footing. The pre-race warm-ups were cautious, short. Jockeys preferred to walk their horses in the middle of the track, or head for the higher slopes on the turns. On the tote boards Riva Ridge was close to 1-5. The one Maryland horse in the race. Bee Bee Bee, fell in the betting from 25-1 to 18-1. The second and third choices were Key To The Mint and No Le Hace.
The instant the horses broke from the gate, one knew something had gone wrong for Riva Ridge. He seemed cut off, walled in, bouncing and slithering. Bee Bee Bee took to the front, behind it a scramble, and in that scramble, Riva Ridge. Once or twice Turcotte made a run at an opening only to see it close up, or his horse slide away from the run. With half a mile to go he finally seemed to break through - and here versions of what happened differ. In Lucien Laurin's version Turcotte, instead of taking off after Bee Bee Bee, looked for the feared Key To The Mint, took a tight hold on Riva Ridge, so tight, according to Laurin, that the horse spit its bit. In Turcotte’s version the horse tried to make a run at Bee Bee Bee but just couldn’t get a true hold on the sloppy footing. Before he knew it No Le Hace charged by in its characteristic skid, his jockey sure this time he’d catch that elusive bus. I, in the press box, was so sure Bee Bee Bee would falter after a mile I didn’t even see him still hanging onto the lead. Sure the race was between No Le Hace. Riva Ridge and Key To The Mint, I was stunned to see Bee Bee Bee whiz across the finish line first.
A deadly silence hung in the air. A speed horse had, once again, stolen a big one. A horse whose earnings were a small fraction of Riva Ridge’s came home under a small-track 44-year-old local rider called Eldon Nelson who had won the previous race in exactly the same way — breaking in front and staying in the drier slots all the way.
In one swipe Bee Bee Bee had destroyed all possibility of a Triple Crown for Riva Ridge. For Meadow Stable. For Kentucky. So who was going to take the rap for that?
Blame and buck-passing are as much a part of racing as horses and riders. If 10 horses go and only one wins, nine losers have to explain how come. Nine trainers who have convinced nine owners that each of nine horses can do it now have to explain why this day this horse did not. It can’t be that the horse wasn’t ready because if that were so surely the trainer wouldn’t have let it run. It can’t be that the horse isn’t in the class of the winner, because if that were so the owner wouldn’t have entered it. It can’t really be the condition of the track because great horses can handle all kinds of track conditions — and all 10 trainers and 10 owners know their horse is a great one. Now if something accidental could be blamed — the horse shied at a shadow, stepped in a hole, ducked away from a diving jet or pigeon, was bounced by another horse, lost a shoe, was struck by lightning — then, of course, everybody is home free. No trainer wants to say his horse was lame, though quite professionally swathed in bandages foreleg and rear. Nor does he want to explain how come he left a horse in who has not been eating, and has lost 50 or 60 pounds since its last outing. The owner, similarly, doesn't want to rap his own horse sense, the money put out at the yearling sales, or the meaning in brood lines. So, there’s the jockey. Not that jockeys can’t, and don’t, lose races. In the chain of blame, though, he is most exposed and most easily replaced.
All jockeys, even the best established, know what it is to be bumped off a horse because the word has gone out that Willie Shoemaker is available, or Braulio Baeza. But not even Shoemaker is immune to being bumped off a horse in favor of another rider. Nor is Baeza, or Angel Cordero Jr., or Lafiit Pincay Jr., or Turcotte, or any other of the top 10 jockeys riding on major North American tracks.
For days after the Preakness Laurin was quoted in detail. The patsy for his comments was Ron Turcotte. And if that weren’t bad enough, in the Mother Goose, the second run in the Triple Crown for fillies, Turcotte, again on Summer Guest, came third to Susan’s Girl and Wanda running neck and neck to the wire. This time the rap was put on him by the same Elliott Burch who had praised him so highly in the Black-Eyed Susan. On two successive Saturdays Turcotte had seemingly lost all the confidence those same trainers had been showering on him right up to the Preakness itself.
But, the Monday after the Preakness, when I came out to Belmont early to see how the fans would greet a losing Turcotte I was surprised. Loud handclapping. As someone who had lost on a 1-5 shot Turcotte might have expected boos.
“Water under the bridge, Ronnie,” someone said, “don’t let it get you down.”
“Nobody coulda run on that slop, Ronnie,” someone else shouted, forgetting, I suppose, Bee Bee Bee.
As Turcotte got up on his first mount, a big fat Mafia cigar hollered:
“Look out for Bee Bee Bee, Turcotty.”
“Don’ listen to tha’ stiff, Ronnie,” someone on the other side of the paddock yelled, “we’re witcha, baby.”
Turcotte, in that race, unhappily ran last.
In the days that followed, the papers were full of quotes about Turcotte’s “faulty” ride. Elliott Burch took Turcotte off Summer Guest in the Hempstead Handicap - and the horse won by 4'/2 lengths! There was even talk of Ray Broussard riding Riva Ridge. Or Shoemaker being flown in. All talk: nobody seriously contemplated taking Turcotte off Riva Ridge in the Belmont.
So back he came, as most people who follow racing know, to win a smashing seven-length victory over Ruritania in the Belmont. No Le Hace was nowhere to be seen at the finish, even though its owner had bumped its regular jockey for star rider Angel Cordero Jr. Key To The Mint was disposed of early. Riva Ridge sailed home full of run and looking all over again like the new horse of the quarter-century. Back came Lucien Laurin’s grin. Mrs. Tweedy was herself again, though understandably sad the race didn’t cap a Triple Crown.
To make the Turcotte story complete, Elliott Burch, watching the race, decided he had to have Ron Turcotte back on Summer Guest in the $100,000 Coaching Club American Oaks the following Saturday. Turcotte, who had won two front-running races on Riva Ridge, almost duplicated his come-from-behind Black-Eyed Susan win on Summer Guest. This time the horse didn’t rear and hit the gate, and it won, again, going away.
Trainers, like the presently suspended Buddy Jacobson, who kept telling the press Ron Turcotte was the best frontrunner in the business, had Riva Ridge’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes runs to talk about. Others, like Horatio Luro, Northern Dancer’s trainer, who passed the word about Ron Turcotte’s ability to come from behind, had Summer Guest’s wins to point to. Still others, knowing Ron is a Canadian and remembering how well he did on the turf his first season at Saratoga, will tell you Turcotte’s strictly a turf rider, though one of the best. The machinery of praise is always ready to reverse. If Turcotte loses the praisers say he burns out rallying horses by making them take the lead, or lets the front-running sprinters fall behind.
Steve Cady, a younger turf writer for The New York Times and a great admirer of Turcotte’s riding, thinks Turcotte will never be an “in” rider. He doesn’t do any of the usual “in” jockey things. Ask him something and he answers. His agent, Joe Schiavone, says, “Ronnie’s one of the nicest kids around.” He goes to Mass on Sundays. He’s a real family man who lives in an unostentatious house in an unpretentious section of Long Island with his ex-schoolteacher wife, Gaetane, and three daughters, six, four and three. His house is always teeming with New Brunswick relatives, farm people like himself. Ron thinks nothing of lending them his Cadillac or station wagon. For the rest everything is modest. Most of his money is safely held, in banks, or in the odd real estate venture. He distrusts the stock market. The swimming pool at the back of his house is small, with almost no lolling space around it. The house is full of trophies and plaques and special citations. As things look now Turcotte will most certainly have another year of trophies — and two million dollars plus in purses.
Last year Riva Ridge hadn’t broken his maiden till two weeks after the Belmont Stakes. Few of the good two-yearolds have made their appearance as yet. Turcotte didn’t get to ride Riva Ridge till August 2, 1971. From that date to the end of the year they won their good half million.
He’ll continue to ride Riva Ridge in the many $100,000 added stakes races scheduled at the major tracks. In July, Riva Ridge won the $100,000 Hollywood Derby. By now, of course, Riva Ridge is being invited to walk off with a track’s available dough. Riva Ridge will be a top attraction till he retires to stand in stud. And one suspects Ron Turcotte will be on him till he quits. Kelso did well as a seven-year-old. Many horses did their best running at five or six. Most, of course, showed their real stuff as four-year-olds.
Similarly, Summer Guest has only begun to run. In July, this filly won the $50,000 Monmouth Stakes easily.
And yet it’s still not home free for Ron Turcotte. There’s no way he’s going to become an Eddie Belmonte — any more than it’s possible for Eddie Belmonte to become Ron Turcotte. So the turf writers will go on talking about how Shoe won this and Cordero won that, and, when Riva Ridge’s name comes up, how the horse was really really something.
But where the writers are grudging, owners and trainers must look to self-interest. Anybody who saw Ron Turcotte win the Derby, the Wood Memorial on Riva Ridge’s stablemate Upper Case, the Belmont, the Coaching Club, or any other of the dozens of stakes races he has already won, knows that on any given day any owner or trainer who wants to give his horse a winning chance must consider the availability of Ron Turcotte. He has made it to the top with no gimmicks, no public relations push.
Turcotte carries Canada with him wherever he goes. Being just “a Canadian kid” in the fast-talking racing world has proved to be a handicap and a burden. But when Ron talks about the farm his face glows. The frown disappears. He looks as he does when playing with his three little daughters.
When George Knudson’s on the professional golf trail, his being Canadian is merely an interesting fact. So, too, with Ferguson Jenkins or Reggie Cleveland, who few baseball fans even know are Canadian. Longden, Atkinson, Woolf fell right into the American patterns, too.
But Ron Turcotte is as intractable as New Brunswick farmland or the snow that drove him to Toronto. When you see him in the big time, being his own person, you learn about him but you also learn something about the Maritimes, or our farm people, or what’s toughest and best in what may yet emerge as our national character. The big-time racing scene is surely no tougher than a New Brunswick winter, or unemployment, or a strike, or a lockout. That’s what this “Canadian kid” is all about and, through him, Canada is impressive. ■