Still Haunted by His Fall, a Jockey Struggles to Get His Life Back on Track
Five years after the Fall, the memory replays in Ron Turcotte’s mind as clearly as the videotape he has watched so many times. It is a sunny afternoon at New York’s Belmont Park, and Turcotte has just broken from the starting gate in the eighth race when his mount collides with another and throws the jockey headfirst onto the track. “I grabbed my leg, and I couldn’t feel anything,” he says, recalling those first terrible moments. “I didn’t know how permanent or how bad it was, but I knew I was paralyzed. “And so he remains, a former champion whose 3,033 victories include two Kentucky Derbies, two Preaknesses and two Belmont Stakes. Best remembered for guiding Secretariat to the Triple Crown in 1973, Turcotte had earned almost $3 million during his 16 years in the irons before his career abruptly ended. Two years after his accident he left his Long Island home and his beloved racetracks to move to an 18-room farmhouse in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, Canada, near his boyhood home. There, with wife Gaetane, 39, and their four daughters, aged 9 to 17, he has fought to regain his health and adapt to life as a paraplegic. Shortly before the fifth anniversary of his accident, Turcotte, now 41, spoke to PEOPLE’S Nellie Blagden about that last ride and the hard times that followed.
It was July 13, 1978, and I was riding a horse named Flag of Leyte Gulf. We started out of the gate and went about 30 yards when the horse on my left started drifting out pretty bad, maybe shying away from a dark spot on the racetrack. Anyway, my horse lost his footing and we went down.
I landed on my head, then my shoulder hit, then my back. It was like being shot out of a slingshot. When I hit, it crushed two vertebrae, broke two others, and pinched the spinal column. I couldn’t feel my hand on my leg. It was like touching somebody else’s body. I knew right away what had happened. The outrider came running to me, and I told him, “Don’t touch me; there’s something wrong. I can’t move.”
At the hospital the last thing I remember is the doctors giving me a sedative. I looked at the clock when they were wheeling me to the operating room, and then I remember waking up in intensive care. I had a tremendous headache and was sweating an awful lot. They had put two steel rods in my back to help with the healing, but I had contracted spinal meningitis, which explained the headache and the sweating. A week later I needed another operation to remove the rods.
Right away the doctors told me that it was going to be bad, that I’d never walk again. I had heard of people who were unconscious a month or two and came out of it all right, and I was saying to myself, “Why can’t they wait and see what happens?” But the next day they said exactly the same thing. I tried to stop thinking about it, to chase it out of my mind—that I’d never be able to ride again, to wade a stream, go fishing, walk in the woods.
It was two months before I could start my rehabilitation. The nurses put me in the wheelchair and brought me to meet the doctors. They stopped in front of a mirror. Well, I had had really big arms, and I was muscular for my size. [He weighed 114 pounds in his heyday and stood 5’1″.] But when I looked at myself, I saw little arms and how much I was drawn up, and I felt like crying.
After evaluation they put me on an exercise program. I lifted weights, did sit-ups and tried to lift myself on a mat. They teach you how to roll, how to transfer from a bed to a chair, from a chair to a car. Then they teach you how to dress yourself. You can’t just get up and jump into your pants anymore. You have to start all over. About two months after I had been exercising this pain started—like a barbed-wire tourniquet around my chest. I went to a Toronto hospital, and a doctor there said they needed to put back the steel rods on each side of my spinal cord because my back was collapsing. I went through that, and it didn’t stop the pain, but it did stabilize my back. I’m not as hunched over as I was.
I was very troubled with bladder infections until about two years ago. I couldn’t go anywhere because I didn’t know when the infections and the pain would hit me. Every week or 10 days I was confined to my bed for three or four days with medication, and I couldn’t depend on my health. I kept losing strength and was really deteriorating. That was a rough time psychologically and physically for me. In August 1981 I had an operation which enabled me to more easily empty my bladder. Since then I haven’t had the trouble with infection that I used to and I can get around, accept invitations, stuff like that. I’ve picked up a lot.
My family never made me feel that I was less of a man, but I get very aggravated when I want to do something and can’t. Like I’ll try to teach the kids to ride. I can tell them but I can’t show them, and it’s frustrating. You feel that you’re not a whole man anymore, not the provider, not the leader. It’s not the same as when you were walking.
God gives me the strength to take each day at a time, so that’s what I do. I try to get out every day, and although I need help getting in and out of my van or car, I can drive myself around, chat with the people about farming and pass the time. I do push-ups, moving myself up and down in my wheelchair with my arms, and I use wall pulleys and lift barbells. I’m not as good about doing my exercises as I should be because the pain gets to me. It’s always there, and when you know how much it’s going to hurt, you don’t want to get burned. Always, Gae helps me.
I have gotten involved with several organizations that work with paraplegics, and right here in Grand Falls I am serving with a group trying to build a mini sports complex that will be accessible to the able bodied and the handicapped. And I still keep in touch with the track and my old friends there.
I have a $105 million suit in the courts against the New York Racing Association and others over my accident, but I read the Racing Form every day, and I miss the racetrack. I’m not to the point where I can entertain a steady job, and being around a track would put too much stress on me. I would be trying to train horses now if I were healthy, but I’m not up to it yet.
But racing has been good to me. I love the track, and I’m living for the day when I can get back to it.