Ron Turcotte was the most unlikely of American Triple Crown winners.
The Canadian rode superstar Secretariat to the 1973 Triple Crown, becoming the first jockey to record the historic sweep in 25 years. But in his book, "The Turcottes: The Remarkable Story of a Horse Racing Dynasty," author Curtis Stock details how Turcotte got into horse racing merely by chance.
"It was pure coincidence and fate," Stock said in an interview. "He went to Toronto with his best friend, Reggie Pelletier, and they couldn't find work anywhere and were just about ready to go back to New Brunswick.
"That was in 1960 and it was the first Saturday in May, which is when the Kentucky Derby is run. Ron comes down the stairs of the boarding house he and Reggie were living in and finds the landlord watching the Derby, which he'd never heard of. The landlord says to Ron, 'Given your small stature that's what you should be doing, be a jockey.'"
Turcotte didn't know what a jockey was.
"The landlord answered, 'The little guys in white pants,'" Stock said. "Ron had never seen a horse race, he'd never heard of the Kentucky Derby.
"All of a sudden now he gets started at Woodbine with E.P. Taylor's barn, of all places, and two years later he's Canada's leading rider."
Turcotte was one of 14 children, and among five brothers who eventually became jockeys. At age 14, Turcotte went to work as a lumberjack with his father.
Four years later, Turcotte and Pelletier left Drummond, N.B., for Toronto where Turcotte was hoping to work as a roofer. A strike at the time scuttled those plans and forced Turcotte and Pelletier to look for whatever employment they could find, which included picking worms to help make ends meet.
Then came that fateful day in May that introduced Turcotte to horse racing.
Turcotte ultimately earned 3,032 career racing wins. That included riding Riva Ridge to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont in 1962 as well as the legendary Northern Dancer to his first-ever trip to the winner's circle that year at Fort Erie Racetrack.
His brothers were also successful. Rudy Turcotte registered 1,740 victories and $11.6 million in earnings while Yves Turcotte had 1,347 wins for $8.9 million. Roger Turcotte recorded 1,187 wins for $6.5 million while Noel Turcotte accumulated 945 victories for $3.43 million.
Stock, 69, a longtime sports reporter with both the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, was continually surprised the more he learned about the Turcottes and their respective journeys into racing.
"You start with five brothers from a lumberjack family, which you wouldn't equate as a likely source for jockeys," he said. "You think lumberjacks and you think big, burly men, not small jockeys.
"The five of them won 8,251 races for purse earnings just shy of $60 million so they were all good."
But with the rewards came risk as the book also addresses some of Turcottes' struggles.
The life of a jockey entails almost daily issues regarding weight and the seemingly constant battles to not only take it off but also keep it off. There's eating minimally, using laxatives and diuretics as well as sitting in a sauna or jogging in a rubber suit.
And then on July 13, 1978, Ron Turcotte fell from his horse during a race at Belmont Park, his injuries leaving him a paraplegic at age 36.
"The remarkable thing about that is Ron never complains," Stock said. "I've asked him if he's in pain and he's said, 'That would be complaining and I don't complain.'
"He never once bemoaned his fate."
Yves Turcotte, the youngest of the five brothers, visited Roger Turcotte and worked cleaning out stalls before getting into racing. But that involved dropping weight, which he ultimately did.
However, in 1994, Yves Turcotte suffered broken feet in a racing incident. There were also three head injuries by the time he was 39 years old.
But Yves is somewhat fortunate. Ron Turcotte remains confined to a wheelchair while both Roger Turcotte and Noel Turcotte ended up taking their own lives.
Rudy Turcotte died of pneumonia, kidney and liver failure in 2019 at age 69. His riding career was cut short due to alcoholism.
"It's about triumph and tragedy," Stock said of his book. "Their story has so many paths and hooks.
"It's an almost implausible tale and slice of relatively unknown Canadiana."
In the final chapter, Stock outlines how horse racing is 'an addictive but unforgiving sport, especially for the jockeys, whose career are generally short. Once it's in your blood, it stays there'"
Yves Turcotte admits often a jockey is unprepared for the end of his/her racing career.
"The sport tells you when it's time, and most of the time it's before you want it to end," Yves said later in the same chapter. "The outside world can be a scary place to dwell. The racetrack is their comfort zone. So, they keep hanging on.
"Ron paved the way for Noel, Rudy and Roger. By the time I came along that road was broken. Things had all gone bad for Noel, Rudy and Roger. All three of them didn't grasp how lucky they were to be in the position they were in."
"The Turcottes: The Remarkable Story of a Horse Racing Dynasty." Firefly Books. 368 pages. Hardcover $35.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press