BOZICH | Triple Crown Jockeys Hurt By Churchill Downs Snub - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Triple Crown Jockeys Hurt By Churchill Downs Snub

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Triple Crown winning jockeys (from left) Jean Cruguet, Ron Turcotte and Steve Cauthen are featured in a marketing campaign at Belmont Park. (Photo Triple Crown Nutrition.) Triple Crown winning jockeys (from left) Jean Cruguet, Ron Turcotte and Steve Cauthen are featured in a marketing campaign at Belmont Park. (Photo Triple Crown Nutrition.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Ron Turcotte is not the only Triple-Crown winning jockey who too often feels like an also-ran whenever he deals with the Churchill Downs management about Kentucky Derby day.

Add Jean Cruguet to the list of former riders whose feelings have been bruised.

Turcotte and Cruguet love to share stories about the remarkable days when Turcotte won the Triple Crown with Secretariat in 1973 and Cruguet followed with his spectacular work aboard Seattle Slew four years later. Racing has lacked a Triple Crown winner since 1978. On the race track, these guys are legends, signing autographs, posing for pictures and selling the game wherever they go.

But the jockeys share more than their success in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. They share a hurt. They wonder why Churchill does not embrace them the way they have been embraced by the New York Racing Association and Belmont Park.

“I’m not looking for the red carpet,” Turcotte said. “I’m not even asking for a seat because I bring my own seat (he is paralyzed and bound to a wheelchair). There’s not a vendetta going on … it’s just getting to be a joke with the horsemen.”

“I don’t blame Ron for being upset,” Cruguet said. “They don’t (make tickets available) for me either. I guess they don’t care about what you did in the past. They care about what you can do now.”

What Belmont did with Turcotte, Cruguet and Steve Cauthen (Affirmed, 1978), the only three living jockeys to win the Triple Crown, was invite them to New York on March 31 to commemorate racing’s glory days.

All three were paid $5,000 and expenses. They gathered at Belmont, where they filmed a series of commercials that have already aired on TV.

You can also find the spots (click here) on YouTube – and appreciate the joy Turcotte, Cruguet and Cauthen have for their historic achievements. They posed for pictures with Triple Crown Nutrition, pictures the company has posted on its Facebook page. They’ll be back in New York, as Belmont’s featured guests, in early June for the final leg of the Triple Crown.

“We had so much fun,” Cruguet said.

You won’t see either Turcotte or Cruguet at Churchill Downs Saturday. Cruguet, who is 75, said that he has not had a Derby ticket since 2010. He said he would likely watch the race at home with his partner, LuAnne Burton, on their farm in Lexington. I asked Cruguet if he had been invited to Derby 140 on Saturday.

“No,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”

“It’s very hurtful to him,” Burton said. “He loves being an ambassador for the sport and doesn’t understand why Churchill isn’t interested in him and Ron and Steve. They do so much to promote the sport and raise money for the PDJF (Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund).”

Turcotte moved this story onto the national wires Wednesday after he posted a story on a horse-farm web site, outlining his problems attending and finding parking for the Kentucky Derby the last two years. Turcotte’s complaint followed a blog post from Rick Porter, a thoroughbred owner, who had written about the high cost and difficulties of securing tickets for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks.

On Tuesday another trainer who has won the Kentucky Derby and one of his owners complained to me about dealing with the track over Derby tickets. They did not want to speak on the record because of concerns about retribution.

John Asher, Churchill’s vice president for racing communications, apologized publicly to Porter and Turcotte Wednesday. Turcotte, 72, said that Asher called him Wednesday evening and asked him to call any time he would like to visit the track.

"We're sorry that it happened," Asher said. "I don’t know how it happened. Somebody dropped the ball. I had no idea this had happened and when I heard about it, it took all the air out of me. It was like a shot to the chest. 

"I just told Ron it was not acceptable and that he was a cherished member of the Kentucky Derby family. I told him if there is an issue, we’re going to fix it."

Asher said that both Turcotte and Cruguet are welcome on Kentucky Derby day and that he would talk to both jockeys about attending the race next year.

Turcotte lives in New Brunswick, Canada. He will not make that visit Saturday for the Kentucky Derby, a race he won in 1972 with Riva Ridge and again in 1973 with Secretariat. In fact, Turcotte was not ready to commit to attending the 2015 Kentucky Derby. Despite his paralysis, Turcotte has navigated a determined life with a wheelchair since a racing accident at Belmont in 1978.

He remains an inspiring connection to racing’s glory days and the game’s greatest horse – even if the big shots at Churchill Downs do not appear to be inspired.

“I was at the Derby Museum for the race last year and was told that I couldn’t go to the track, past the museum,” Turcotte said. “I just came home, came to the hotel. Watched the Derby on TV in my hotel.”

Think about that. We’re talking about 2013 – the 40th anniversary of the day Secretariat set the track record while winning the first leg of the Triple Crown. The record stands. It might stand forever. Today's 3-year-olds can't run the way Ron Turcotte got Secretariat to run in the Derby. But Ron Turcotte leaves the track last year to watch the Derby on TV.

Turcotte said that he has not watched the Derby at the track since 2009. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 he visited as the guest of the Kentucky Derby Museum, where he signed autographs.

Two years ago the National Film Board of Canada captured his visit while filming the documentary, “Secretariat’s Jockey, Ron Turcotte.” The Film Board paid $500 so Turcotte could park his handicapped-accessible van near the gate.

Last year, Turcotte said he did not have a parking pass.

“I had to park on the outskirts (of the track) behind a building on a back street there,” Turcotte said.

I asked Turcotte if he was glad that he finally spoke up.

“If it will help other jockeys and horsemen, yes,” he said.

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