Four decades after one of the most legendary races in American thoroughbred history, Ron Turcotte remembers a feeling of floating on air.
No one in the history of the world has ever felt what jockey Ron Turcotte felt 40 years ago, on June 9, 1973, when he rode a three-year-old chestnut colt named Secretariat to his immortal 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes. No jockey, before or since, has ever been that far ahead in a race to determine a Triple Crown, aboard a horse so relentlessly dominant, in front of so many fans in full throat at the implausibility of what they were seeing with their own eyes.
Last month, sitting trackside at the Pimlico Race Track in Maryland, just a few days before this year's Preakness Stakes, Turcotte and Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery met with us for an interview for 60 Minutes Sports (for a piece that aired Wednesday on Showtime and will air again a few times this month). Both had come to Baltimore for the second leg of the Triple Crown and to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the great horse's exploits (there will be no Triple Crown winner this year. Affirmed, in 1978, was the last colt to accomplish the task). Here's a clip from our interview:
They are an unlikely pair, Chenery and Turcotte, the last survivors of a charismatic team that included trainer Lucien Laurin, groom Eddie Sweat, assistant trainer Henny Hoeffner and, of course, the horse himself. Secretariatdied almost 24 years ago but Turcotte still defers to his former owner. The chain of command still exists. And Chenery, for her part, still plays the regal role. At horse-racing events around the nation, they don't just promote and defend the legend of Secretariat— they serve as a sort of talisman. You should have seen the glee on the faces of the Pimlico staff and patrons when it became clear who had graced them with their presence.
We asked Chenery and Turcotte to watch the 1973 Belmont together. As the video played, as Chick Anderson's legendary race call began, as the pair saw the timeless race unfold again, with Secretariat shooting up a gap near the rail, Turcotte told his former owner that he could feel the big horse's heartbeat during the race, that he could feel the horse's rhythmic breathing through his legs. "Incidentally," Turcotte reminded Chenery, "you broke a track record pulling up—the one and five-eights also." The horse was traveling so fast that even when he slowed down after the wire he set a record.
Then I asked Turcotte to tell us what it was like to be dozens of lengths ahead in the Belmont after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness—to share with the world a perspective that isn't likely to be duplicated no matter how long men and women ride horses for sport. Turcotte described it:
When there's nobody around you, the wind is right—you can hear the announcer just—as well as anybody in the grandstand, maybe better, because it's propelled that way. And I could hear the announcer exactly how many lengths I was in front. My curiosity got the best of me about—just as I turned for home.
That's when I looked across the track. A lot of people think that the pic—the photo was me looking back where the—the other horses was, which was not. I had an eye on the crowd, and I had an eye on—on the inboard—clock. And I could see the time, and I could see—it looked like—you heard the term—a whitecap on an ocean? Well, the crowd was like doing this to me.
Just think about that moment and consider that Turcotte lost the use of his own legs 35 years ago when he fell off a horse at Belmont Park, the very same track where he had, for a record-shattering two minutes and twenty-four seconds, raced into legend. The two moments at Belmont, one exalted, the other tragic, are inseparable in Turcotte's life. In the one he soared, in the other he crashed, and he's lived ever since with the fallout from both. Grounded permanently now, you don't need to spend much time with him to see that he's still soaring on top of that big horse, with the wave of the crowd cresting and the wire in sight.
Here's the race again. It gives me chills every time I watch it—and I have watched it probably a hundred times: