His life up to that point trained him to persevere. Born to a large French-Canadian Catholic family, he grew up without running water or central heating. With his brothers, he fished and hunted for food to help keep his family fed. He left school at 13 to join his father working as a lumberjack to provide for the family.
At 5’1’’ and 128 pounds, he was a small lumberjack. Though it wasn’t ideal for a lumberjack, his size proved to be a great asset to his future. Knowing the risks of logging, his father put him to work with the horses rather than the more dangerous work in the forest. The young boy learned to be patient with the horses and build up the confidence they needed to complete the work.
The life of a lumberjack was not what he wanted. Looking around, he realized that lumberjacks work harder than most but never escape the struggle of earning a living wage. He saw it as a hard life with little reward. Not willing to live out that fate, he left the trade in the late 1950s. Eventually, he found work as a hot walker, someone who cares for race horses. His days of working with the logging horses soon paid off. When someone recommended that he become a jockey, he took their advice and soon was making money by winning competitions.
In 1971 his career reached a turning point when he met a big, clumsy, calm-tempered horse that would carry him to some of his most glorious victories. He earned a name for himself in the world of racing. Like logging, racing horses was hard work. The difference was horse racing provided the money that logging never would. And, he loved horse racing.
In 16 years, he earned over 3000 victories including the Triple Crown. Just before his 37th birthday in 1978, his career ended in a matter of seconds. Moments after leaving the starting gate, his horse lost its footing and he was hurled to the ground. He remained conscious and knew his injuries were disastrous. Later, he would learn that he was paralyzed from the waist down.
In the weeks following the accident, he remained hospitalized while undergoing numerous procedures. He grappled with the fact that he would probably not walk again and the reality that his successful career was over. While still in a back brace, he trained at the gym and made plans for how he would get around without the use of his legs. In a 1978 interview with People Magazine, he assured the reporter that his injuries would not prevent him from enjoying the outdoors or horse racing. He continues to love the sport and has become a devoted fan.
By the time he was injured, he had developed a reputation as a great horseman. He used his influence and wealth to became an advocate for jockey’s with disabilities. To this day, he raises funds for disability programs and works with the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund (PDJF).
If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you probably recognize the story of Ron Turcotte who rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown victory in 1973. Turcotte and his wife now live on 400 acres near the area where he grew up. He regularly returns to Belmont, the site of his famous winning ride on Secretariat and the place where his career came to an end. In June 2014, he told a reporter for New York Daily News: “The accident is behind me,” he says. “I take what comes along. I’ve never looked back, and I’m not going to start looking back now.” One way or another, he continues to love horse racing and find ways to be involved in the sport.