Every town has its favourite son, someone who left as a kid from the neighbourhood and came back a hero, having conquered the world. And when you travel, now and then you come across one that takes you by surprise. That’s how during my east coast road trip this summer, I made an unplanned stop to see Ron Turcotte, or at least, the Ron Turcotte statue in Grand Falls, New Brunswick.
If you’re even a casual observer of horse racing, you’ve likely heard of the great Secretariat — probably the race horse of the last century. And if you’ve seen him pictured in the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby or any of the other big-money races he won, you’ve seen Ron Turcotte sitting on his back. Secretariat made Turcotte a racing legend, but he was a star in his own right, riding a Who’s Who of famous horses to victory.
So it’s odd to think that the world-famous jockey was born just outside of Grand Falls, in a little place called Drummond. He could hardly have picked a place farther from the great race tracks of North America — though he did become a horseman here as a teenager, guiding the work horses as they dragged logs to the mill in the New Brunswick woods.
At 18, like many East coast boys, he headed to Toronto, looking for work. But by accident, he discovered horse racing. In an interview years later, I heard him describe seeing the Kentucky Derby on TV in a Toronto rooming house. “Who are those little guys in the white pants?” he asked. “Jockeys,” someone answered. “Heck,” he said — “I can do that.”
Do it he did. He got a job cleaning stalls at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, worked his way up to exercise rider, and was soon a top jockey. Before leaving town, he rode the legendary Northern Dancer to his first victory.
Then it was off to the U.S. and greatness. He won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes on Riva Ridge, and the Preakness on Tom Rolfe. And then, in a moment of fate, he was picked to ride the horse they called Big Red. Together, Turcotte and Secretariat made history. In 1973 they swept the U.S. Triple Crown, setting new records in all three races and demolishing the Belmont field by an unbelievable 31 lengths. Both the horse and his jockey were shoo-ins for the Racing Hall of Fame, and Turcotte was given the Order of Canada for his achievements.
Turcotte’s racing career came to a tragic end in 1978 when a fall from a horse left his legs paralyzed. He later returned to Grand Falls to live, while continuing to advocate for the disabled. And in 2015, the town decided to give him its own tribute, this statue of him crossing the finish line to win the Belmont Stakes on Secretariat. There’s a plaque, too, which you see above.
And so Ron Turcotte rides Big Red again, this time in the middle of Broadway Boulevard in his home town. I’ve seen a lot of famous monuments in a lot of cities, but for me, the Ron Turcotte statue in Grand Falls was something special. If you come to see the falls, drop by and say hello.