Secretariat's jockey complains of treatment by Churchill Downs

jpatton1@herald-leader.comApril 30, 2014 

Two-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Ron Turcotte, who gave racing fans some of the sport's memorable moments aboard Secretariat and Riva Ridge in the 1970s, says Churchill Downs today won't let him into the Derby or give him a handicapped-accessible parking space at the track.

"In each of these instances, Churchill Downs management knew well in advance that I would be attending the Derby, yet never made an effort to offer one shred of hospitality or professional courtesy," Turcotte said.

The Triple Crown winning jockey, who still holds the all-time track record at Churchill Downs, is now a paraplegic.

Wednesday afternoon, Churchill Downs' spokesman John Asher, speaking to media in Louisville, apologized for losing contact with Turcotte over the years and said he is still trying to contact the former jockey calling him "a valued and treasured member of the Kentucky Derby family" and promised there will never be an issue again with Turcotte, according to the New York Daily News. He called it a "lack of communication."

In a public letter posted on Fox Hill Farm's website, Turcotte said that in 2012 and 2013 the "track management" would not provide either accommodation or parking access during Oaks and Derby days. He often appears at the Kentucky Derby Museum to sign autographs and support the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Foundation, he said.

"Being confined to a wheelchair since my racing accident in 1978, it is no easy feat to maneuver through the crowds that attend the Derby festivities. It becomes a nearly impossible task when there is virtually no assistance from the track," Turcotte wrote. "In 2012, despite being the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary being filmed at Churchill Downs, I was denied any parking assistance by the track. If not for the gracious actions of the film crew who had no other choice but to pay Churchill Downs $500 to allow me the "privilege" of on-site parking in a handicapped accessible spot, I am not sure what would have happened.

"In 2013, despite strong lobbying on my behalf by the Kentucky Derby Museum who hosted my appearance, I once again received no parking accommodation from Churchill Downs and ultimately was forced to park in an off-track neighborhood lot across Central Avenue. Making matters worse, I was then informed that Churchill Downs policy restricted my access to the Museum grounds only, preventing me from even being able to watch the race I had won twice."

Turcotte could not be reached for comment but told The Associated Press he was so disgusted by how he was treated that he decided not to attend this year's Derby.

"What I can see about the management of Churchill Downs right now, it's all for money and they're not at all for horsemen or horses," he said. "We're a long way from the golden era that I rode."

The allegations drew swift condemnation on social media from those inside and outside of racing alike.

Graham Motion, trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, tweeted: "I have held my tongue about the way CDowns treats horseman in lead up to Ky Derby but letter from Ron Turcotte is believable and deplorable."

Turcotte contacted Rick Porter after the Lexington owner/breeder posted his own letter complaining about poor treatment from Churchill Downs. Porter took his Normandy Invasion to another track after Churchill would not give him tickets on Oaks Day, when his horse would have run on the undercard.

Turcotte, in his letter, said he reached out to commiserate over Churchill's actions.

"After reading your post, it has become painfully obvious that this lack of basic consideration also applies to many others who helped shape Churchill Downs' history or promote its welfare," Turcotte wrote. "I have been very blessed to have had so much success within the sport I love, and one of the greatest moments for me was being inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame. With that honor, I remember proudly receiving the golden Hall of Fame lapel pin, which at the time allowed complimentary access to every major racetrack across the nation. It is disheartening to me that the present business culture and management at Churchill Downs now treats my treasured pin as an obsolete relic."

Asher said that Porter will now be at Churchill on Friday to present the trophy to the winner of the Eight Belles Stakes, which honors Porter's filly that broke down in the 2008 Kentucky Derby after finishing second, according to the New York Daily News.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl

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