Fifty years later, Turcotte still has clear view of Secretariat’s incredible Belmont win

Vintage photo of horses racing

Jockey Ron Turcotte, left, aboard Secretariat, turns for a look at the field behind them during the 1973 Belmont Stakes. (Dave Pickoff/AP file photo)

When you look back, it’s a matter of perspective.

Ron Turcotte took a peek behind him as he rode Secretariat down the Belmont Park stretch in 1973, an iconic moment in sports history.

What the jockey saw was the better part of a gap between his horse and Twice a Prince that would continue to expand to 31 lengths by the time Secretariat hit the wire moments later to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the first Triple Crown since Citation did it in 1948.

By any standard in thoroughbred racing, it was a massive span of ground.

As time goes, 50 years may seem like a long span, too, one that can blur images and dull memories.

When Turcotte looks back, though, time compresses and the 1973 Belmont rushes back almost like it was yesterday. That’s to racing’s benefit, as Belmont Park celebrates the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Belmont win this week.

The 81-year-old Turcotte still vividly remembers that day, and shared some of the story during a national teleconference on Wednesday afternoon.

“Well, it doesn’t seem that long,” he said. “I get to see it on YouTube at times and had a look at it again for a refresher, and, like I said, it doesn’t feel that long ago.

“I was amazed with that horse all along, but he was doing something that you’d never seen before, and we’ll probably never see again.”

Since 2013, Secretariat’s 31-length victory has been commemorated in a unique way at Belmont Park, where the thin Secretariat Pole, painted in owner Meadow Stable’s blue-and-white checked colors, was placed along the rail just under a sixteenth of a mile from the finish to demonstrate the margin of victory.

To get to the moment when Secretariat wowed the Belmont crowd and prompted track announcer Chic Anderson to utter, in wonder, the famous line: “He’s moving like a tre-MEN-dous machine!,” Secretariat needed to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

He did so in both by coming from last place.

Secretariat’s chances in the Derby could have been compromised if an abscess in his mouth hadn’t healed in time.

The ailment was discovered the morning of his third-place finish in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct two weeks before the Derby.

“After the Wood Memorial, when I found out what went wrong, I had to work him accordingly, to have him not at his peak, but ready to run the mile and a quarter pretty good to win the Derby,” Turcotte said.

“I rode him very conservatively [in the Derby]. I didn’t ask him much the first three-eighths of a mile, and then when we were going through the turn, I chirped to him and moved my hands a little bit. I went right through that hole and kept passing horses through that first turn. As we turned down the backside, I took him in the clear.

“I was picking up horses like crazy. I just couldn’t believe he could do it that easy. At about the three-eighths pole, I clucked to him once and we just whizzed around that turn. We got into the stretch, and I could see that Laffit Pincay [on Sham] had a lot of horse under him. He wasn’t riding [hard] yet. I tapped my horse to make him switch his lead, and the race was over from there.”

At that point, Turcotte’s confidence in his horse was such that he believed the hard part was over.

Secretariat justified that belief by winning the Preakness by 2 1-2 lengths over Sham.

“I came out of the gate very good, and I just let him get his feet under him,” Turcotte said. “The other horses were really dashing for the first turn, especially the speed horse on the outside. When you get to the rail, after we ran the turn, he took ahold of his horse. I thought, ‘Well, I better not get inside,’ so I wheel him out and pass every horse around the first turn.

“I let him run until he could take the lead and take control of the race, at about the three-quarters pole. The rest of the race, he was running very easy. That kid tried to catch me, and around the three-eighths, he thought he had me. But I hadn’t turned him loose yet.”

Turcotte said he suggested to trainer Lucien Laurin that Secretariat should run in the Jersey Derby between the Preakness and the Belmont, since whatever Secretariat did in his workouts during that time would be good enough to sneak in another victory.

“But he said, ‘You just stay to your business, let me do the managing.’ So I said, ‘OK,’ ” Turcotte said. “I started working him pretty good to get him real tight for the race. I wanted him to peak at the Belmont. When you work a mile and a quarter as fast as you ran in the Derby, that set him up for the Belmont.”

After the Belmont Park starting gate opened, it didn’t take long for the Belmont to become a match race between Secretariat and Sham, who were 10 lengths ahead of the field not far into the backstretch.

Turcotte’s observation at the time was that the other jockeys were playing it conservatively to save something for the grueling mile and a half, but he suffered no such reservation with his horse.

“I knew that Sham was going to try to run with me all the way, so I took a little edge by going to the inside and saving ground around the first turn,” he said. “Then Sham collared me, and it looked like a match race, and it was kind of a match race. But we still had to go a mile and a half.

“We weren’t using our horses a lot, we were just staying together. Then finally something happened to Sham and he left me alone on the lead.

“My horse was striding along, was breathing good under me, and I said to myself, ‘That’s good.’ He was a neat horse to ride. Just a little movement of my hand, to pick it up and to relax, and that’s what he was doing.”

As the pitch of Anderson’s voice heightened and Secretariat relentlessly expanded his lead around the turn and into the stretch, the crowd of 69,000 did not relax.

Anderson announced that Secretariat was 22 lengths in front at the point when Turcotte took the peek behind.

“When I turned around, when they announced I was 20 lengths in front, as I was turning I saw the clock on the infield board,” he said. “And it says 1:59. Then I knew we had the record for the Belmont.

“I let him run, but I kept watching the toteboard all the way down the stretch. I just chirped to him. When I saw a man on the starter’s stand with flashy pants, I didn’t want him to shy from that, so I tucked over a little bit. I still had a lot of horse when I got to the wire.”

Turcotte’s riding career lasted just five more years, ended by a riding accident at Belmont Park that put him in a wheelchair as a paraplegic.

He was inducted to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame a year later and continues to be an advocate for the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund.

It was 50 years ago that he and Secretariat won that long, long race by such a long margin.

It’s a short trip for Turcotte to go back.

“As I turned for home, I was looking ahead and could see the crowd,” he said. “It was like a wild sea in a bad storm, with everything up and down, up and down. A lot of people were jumping up and down.

“It was really a sight to see.”

Contact Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: At The Track, Sports

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