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By Stephen Burnett
As the racing world watches I’ll Have Another to see if the three-year-old Thoroughbred can take the Triple Crown — after winning the first two legs, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes — one of the last living Triple Crown jockeys will be tuned in from a very different perspective.
Born in France and raised as an orphan, Jean Cruguet began learning to ride horses at age 16, and chased that career to the United States. There in 1977, he rode champion Seattle Slew all the way from the Kentucky Derby to the Belmont Stakes. That was only five years after the famous first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, Secretariat, and one year before Affirmed took the title and became the last Crown winner to date. Yet it was Seattle Slew who broke the record to become the first undefeated winner of the Triple Crown.
Even after his very last race in 1996, Cruguet hasn’t lost his love for the sport.
Now, when he’s not at his small Versailles home, Cruguet likes to care for his own horses, or get rides to watch racing simulcasts at Keeneland. On a recent Saturday afternoon, another race was on his television, and Cruguet was planning for more race-watching and signing events. People still love to meet him, such as at one recent signing at Buffalo Wild Wings in Louisville.
“They’ll be waiting in line — ‘Yay, Jean!’ — like [I’m] a big star,” Cruguet remarked. “I’m not a big star. But they make me feel good, you know?”
Born to lose?
Cruguet’s birthplace, he noted with a smile, was in a little French town called Toulouse.
“I was born to lose,” he said.
And indeed his background was difficult, because when Cruguet was five, he and his brother were placed in an orphanage where they remained for about six years.
“My mother couldn’t afford to take care of us,” he explained. “And my father — I never saw him.”
From there, Cruguet was placed in a Roman Catholic secondary school. “It was kind of tough, the priesthood — the kind of priests who would beat you up,” he said. “I had a rough time.”
At age 16, Cruguet decided he’d had enough. His brother was becoming a chef, and he wanted to do more. “I want to be somebody in my life,” he recalled. “I’d do anything to be [on] top, to be something special.”
At first he tried fighting and boxing, but that attempt quickly ended. It was replaced by a chance to ride Thoroughbreds at a race track near his grandfather’s farm.
Cruguet’s jockey training was interrupted when he was pressed into service with the French Army. When he left that — which also included service during the Algerian war — he resumed riding, but without much success.
“So I was doing okay, but nothing special,” Cruguet said.
He attributes his renown now to the woman who became his wife, Denyse. “She was one of the first woman trainers in France,” he said. “She was a beautiful woman. … She was a very good woman. … She was my wife. My best friend. My big sister. She was it, all together. She was a special woman. One in a million. … We were together 47 years.
“If it wasn’t for her, nobody would know me,” Cruguet added. “She was my big help.”
A friend of his had moved to Florida and encouraged him to follow. In 1965, the Cruguets moved there. “After a couple of weeks, I wanted to go back. I didn’t like it.” But they kept going, with Cruguet achieving success at several races. They moved again, to Saratoga, New York, and in 1972 they returned to France for more races there.
“In France, we win everything,” Cruguet said, adding that he was earning well.
Back in the United States, Cruguet began working with trainer William Turner Jr., and first met a horse no one had expected to race — Seattle Slew. Owners Mickey and Karen Taylor had bought the clumsy colt for $17,500, and in 1975 gave him to Turner to train.
Turner became sure he had a special horse and recruited Cruguet to begin riding him.
In 1976, the two-year-old Seattle Slew bested the Champagne Stakes. By the next year, Cruguet had steered the horse to victory at the Wood Memorial Stakes and the Flamingo Stakes. And on Saturday, May 7, 1977, Seattle Slew, the 1-2 favorite, broke out of the Churchill Downs gate.
But Seattle Slew was stalled. An assistant starter had failed to release the racehorse’s reins in time. It was all Cruguet could do to recover and pursue the horses already thundering ahead.
After breaking through the others, one by one, Cruguet pulled Seattle Slew into a neck-and-neck race with For The Moment. At last Seattle Slew burst ahead of Run Dusty Run and won the Kentucky Derby by 1¾ lengths. Cruguet happily recalls that moment, along with his later victories in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, once again breaking racing records.
“It was a big deal; it was something special,” he said. “But to me it was like, you know — I got more feeling when I won my first race than when I won the Kentucky Derby. To me it was so much, you know? … I was so proud. … I enjoyed my first win in the Derby.”
From riding to retirement
Cruguet kept riding, winning other U.S. races, and briefly tried to retire in 1980. Two years later he was back at work, but he finally stopped riding at age 55, in the mid-1990s.
“My wife — she begged me to stop, and I wanted to keep going,” he said. “I was not as good at [it] like I was before, but I wanted to keep going. … For me, it was like going to the country club, you know?”
Instead, he and his wife trained together at their own stable. They traveled across the U.S., from Saratoga, New York, to Florida. Their one daughter is Leslie.
In 1999, the Cruguets moved to Kentucky, still training. “I did good for about five or six years,” he said. “Then my wife, Denyse, got a stroke. … In the last five years, she was in bed.” Soon she also became unable to speak. During that time, Cruguet spent little time in the public, caring for his wife and best friend. For some time Denyse was in a nursing home, but that proved to be a nightmare, he said. He brought her back home. In September 2010, she died.
Now, Cruguet lives alone, but spends plenty of time at Keeneland, watching simulcast races and betting on contenders, taking care of his own ten horses, and attending benefits and signings. He also supports Old Friends, the Midway-based group that cares for retired Thoroughbreds.
Every year he retraces his own tracks: he goes to the Kentucky Derby, watches the Preakness Stakes, and also goes to the Belmont Stakes. People often recognize him and ask him to sign their memorabilia. Though he enjoys his fans’ kindness and memories of his success, his main reaction to that is nonchalance, he admitted. At one signing event, 50 people were waiting in line to meet him.
“I wouldn’t wait [in line] for nothing,” Cruguet remarked with a laugh.
As far as he knows, that will remain his future — still committed to racing, almost as much from a distance as he was when he himself was riding the tracks and helping to break records.
“I like to bet,” he said. “That’s in my blood. … That’s what I know. And I know pretty well, I think so.” Asked if he himself could share a winner’s tips about picking winners, Cruguet revealed his basics: “You got to study. … You got to watch [races] almost every day.”
Photo by Stephen Burnett