Forty years ago Sunday, Ron Turcotte unleashed Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes, prompting the track announcer Chic Anderson to exclaim as he thundered into the final turn, “He’s moving like a tremendous machine!” Secretariat went on to win by 31 lengths, setting a track and stakes record with a time of 2 minutes 24 seconds.
It was a Triple Crown run for the ages, and the roaring spectators were on their feet the entire race. The owner Penny Chenery, a smile seemingly as wide as Secretariat’s lead, threw her hands above her head and waved at the crowd, her friends, anyone who believed in the big red horse.
Turcotte took Secretariat back to the clubhouse for a victory bow, and he waved his cap as the crowd erupted yet again. At this year’s Kentucky Derby, a documentary by Phil Comeau about Turcotte’s life and career called “Secretariat’s Jockey, Ron Turcotte” had its premiere. Turcotte, 71, whose career ended in 1978 after a fall at Belmont Park left him a paraplegic, and Chenery, 91, were reunited last month in Kentucky.
Turcotte and Chenery recently shared their memories of Secretariat. Their interviews, conducted separately, have been condensed and edited.
Q. How was Secretariat training leading to the race?
CHENERY The trainer had the choice of easing up on him because he had two hard races, or intensifying the training. Feeling that he was at a stage in his training where he could only get stronger, he chose to put the screws to him and train him hard. He was able to live up to the pressure and get stronger. Secretariat was a very intelligent horse, and he understood the training program and realized that he was being asked to do more and more, and he chose to ask more of himself.
Q. What were you feeling the day of the Belmont?
CHENERY It was a very hot day. There was a great deal of pressure on me and on the stable from the press — everybody wanting to know how it felt and did we think the horse could win. So it was a great relief when he broke with the field and got good position on the rail and went head-to-head with Sham. Gradually, he drew away; and he was sort of in a zone that it was his own racetrack. He just felt very comfortable.
TURCOTTE It was a hot day, but it was beautiful. He was the best ride you ever wanted to have. He is the greatest horse that ever lived, and he was so generous and gentle and did everything I asked of him. Whenever he was right, no horse could beat him.
Q. Describe your ride on Secretariat.
TURCOTTE At first I had it in my mind, just take it easy and let the rest of the field go on, or just see how they handle their horses coming out of the gate. I had no plan before the race, really. I was going to play it the way it came up. My intention was just go easy the first part, and whenever he wanted to go on, I was going to go on with him. But as it turned out, I just turned to him and got out of that boxed-in spot, and after that he was head-to-head with Sham. He was just galloping, feeling good. He had trained especially good, he had trained faster than races that were being run. So he was going so easy and I said, Well I’m not going to fight you, fella, let’s take it from here. Like I said, he was breathing good and doing everything right, so I decided to just gallop along and it was a fast gallop, but it didn’t feel like he was going nearly as fast as he was.
Q. Did it ever cross your mind to slow him down?
TURCOTTE He had trained so good, and like I said, he was training faster than the races were being run. I felt like he was reaching his peak, and he was doing it easy, and I didn’t want to interfere with him. They didn’t give us our records in the Preakness. So I felt, well, let’s let the people see what he can do. It was more of that than anything else because he had trained so good. He was training two full seconds faster than Riva Ridge [the winner of the 1972 Belmont] ran the previous year. So I thought I was doing the right thing, letting him run that fast.
Q. What made Secretariat so special?
CHENERY What made him so special was that physically, he had no flaws. His conformation was about perfect. He got more out of his stride and was very well balanced. He didn’t get tired; he responded to it.
TURCOTTE He was a superstrong horse, superintelligent, you name it, he had it. He was great every which way you can think of. There’s nothing that any horse had over him. Every time he was right, he never got beat. He ran a couple times when he shouldn’t have run, and that’s how he got beat.
Q. What did you think of the Turcotte documentary?
CHENERY It was a great film. It was his voice. Ron speaks slowly, speaks at length. Ron has great strength, being in a wheelchair for 30 years, very few people are able to survive that. Ron has a lot of courage and a lot of optimism. He doesn’t take himself very seriously. That’s what he had to do. It’s really a wonderful documentary.
TURCOTTE It’s very hard to put almost 72 years into 75 minutes. But he did a pretty good job.
Q. Turcotte was portrayed as tough and feisty in the movie “Secretariat.” Is that accurate?
CHENERY He was a strong person, but he wasn’t feisty. He was very calm. TURCOTTE You have to be aggressive, but you don’t have to be a show-off and be sarcastic. You just have to think of yourself as as good as anybody, and think you can do a better job than the other fella. Without saying it to anybody, you have to think that way. If anybody said don’t think that way, then I don’t think that he could ride for me if I was training. He has to have confidence in himself. Like making the move I made in the Preakness at the first turn; if I didn’t have confidence in myself and in my judgment, it would have been bad to see where I was at — last — and let everybody go, so I thought I was doing the right thing by surveying the field and moving at that point.
Q. Your best and your worst racing memories happened at Belmont. What do you think of when you return?
TURCOTTE For some reason or other, bad days never seem to rile me. It’s like riding 0 for 9 in the mud. I never think about those days. I just think of the good things that happened to me, I never think of the accident or anything like that. That never enters my mind. I’ve been taking my life one day at a time. That’s the way I guess I get by; I just enjoy living. I can’t do what I used to do, but I do all I can do. Looking back, I’d still be a jockey and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Q. Will there ever be another Triple Crown winner?
CHENERY There could well be, but I think it will take an extraordinary horse because in today’s racing programs, we don’t race them so often. Today, you tend to race a horse maybe once every six weeks. We just aren’t training them to be under that much pressure.
TURCOTTE Yes, when the right horse comes along. The Triple Crown is not meant to be easy. You need the right horse to come along that can handle any surface and any type of racetrack. Secretariat could run on anything — there was just no limit to it.