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Turcotte cherishes 40th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown

Peter Schmuck

9:37 PM EDT, May 14, 2013

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Hall of Fame jockey Ron Turcotte is savoring the 40th anniversary of Secretariat's amazing Triple Crown performance in 1973, and why not?

It was the ride of his life.

"I had a wonderful career," Turcotte said on Tuesday. "I was the leading rider when I rode in Canada. I was the leading rider whereever I rode in Maryland and I also had a beautiful career before that, but he was the icing on the cake. Having ridden the greatest thoroughbred of all time in Canada — Northern Dancer — and now we come with the greatest horse of all time in the world, in my opinion. I would never have dreamed of that."

Turcotte reminisced about Secretariat's amazing talent and unprecedented string of record performances in the three Triple Crown races during a roundtable discussion on Tuesday night at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, right before a screening of the documentary about his career entitled "Secretariat's Jockey — Ron Turcotte."

Clearly, he has no problem with his career being defined by just three of his 3,032 career victories, though Turcotte's story runs much deeper than just one spring four decades ago. He was one of the great riders of his generation and might have stacked up a lot more victories if his career had not been cut short by a fall that left him a paraplegic.

But being confined to a wheelchair hasn't slowed him down. Even at 71, he still uses his fame and standing in the racing community to advocate for the disabled and raise money for the Permanently Disabled Jockey's Fund.

Tuesday night's roundtable, which was taped for ESPN's "In the Gate" thoroughbred racing podcast series, was focused largely on the infamous timing controversy that kept Secretariat from being recognizing for breaking the course record at Pimlico for 39 years. Owner Penny Chenery, who was portrayed by Diane Lane in the Disney movie "Secretariat" in 2010, and author Bill Nack, who wrote the book that served as the basis for the movie, joined Turcotte on stage to open the evening.

Several others involved in the fight to correct the timing error that cost Secretariat immediate recognition that he had broken the course record in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

"After the race, I didn't look at the Teletimer," Turcotte said, "but when I went upstairs to the press box, the first guy I ran into was Joe Hirsch and he said, 'Ronny, do you think the time is right on this race? And that's the first time I looked at the Teletimer and I said, 'Hell no!'"

It took almost a lifetime to change the erroneous clocking, which added two seconds to Secretariat's time, but Turcotte and the others on the panel conceded that the change was more important for the purpose of correcting history than it was to the reputation of "Big Red."

That wasn't Turcotte's first Preakness or Triple Crown victory. He had ridden Tom Rolfe to victory at Old Hilltop in 1965 and got two thirds of the Triple Crown in 1972 aboard Riva Ridge, but everybody remembers him for guiding Secretariat into the annals or racing history.

For that, he will not brag. When he was asked how he bonded so well with Secretariat, he demurred.

"Actually, I think that many riders could have bonded with Secretariat," he said. "He was such a lovely horse, such a generous horse. He was a gift that just kept on giving. I don't really take credit for riding Secretariat, because he was a great, great horse. He was the greatest horse of all time."

The Preakness included that legendary outside run at the first turn, but Turcotte said that Secretariat actually saved the best for last.

"I'll tell you, at the Belmont, I think if he had wings, we might have taken off."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.