Saratoga Horse Racing

Jockeys - All-Time Greats Jean Cruguet

user-pic

Thumbnail image for Jean Cruguet Chantilly, France.jpgMany people new to racing are unfamiliar with the name of Jean Cruguet, and this is a pity.  No, make that a sin.


Every year the oft-times fickle racing community falls in love with a potential Triple Crown Winner.  And every year since 1978, this love affair goes sour when, for whatever reason--the would-be conquerer fails to pass the test.  

Jean Cruguet is my favorite all-time Jockey.  The reasons for this are myriad, not the least of which is that he's a beloved friend, so I know a bit about the inner workings of the man's mind.

But even those who don't know Jean have ample reason to love and respect the man:  in case you're either a newbie to racing or a long-time fan who's lived under a rock for the last 40 years--Jean Cruguet is the only undefeated Triple Crown Jockey.  Of the 11 racing teams that went into the Kentucky Derby in search of the Crown, only Cruguet and his mount (my all-time favorite Thoroughbred), the mighty Seattle Slew, went into the Derby and emerged on the other side of the Belmont, undefeated.

In an era before racing purses (prize money) had reached the stratosphere--Cruguet earned in excess of $51 million for the owners of his mounts.  That's a phenomenal figure:  the purse for the 1977 Kentucky Derby was a mere $227,500.  Cruguet earned that money the old-fashioned way:  by racing his butt off, and more-often-than-not, finishing first.

 

 

Jean Cruguet was born on March 8, 1939 in Agen, Lot-et-Garonne, France.  His lifestory begins with rejection and sadness, more pain than a young boy of five should be asked to bear.  But Jean is a man of great determination and focus, traits which helped him get through a childhood that would have broken many others.  This tremendous grit found the perfect arena when he realized that he was a gifted rider.  At age sixteen, a friend of his Grandfather offered him a job at a Thoroughbred racetrack.  His bug days were interrupted by the Algerian War, when he was called to serve in the French Army. 

How many Jockeys survived a war--never mind a conflict as brutal as that in Algeria--and came out on the other side,  more-determined than ever to make his mark on the track?

(If his story so far sounds like a terrific plot for a movie--we are in agreement.  Your Scribe is sketching out a treatment, even as I pen this.)

Following his military service, Jean did, indeed, return to racing, and at the track found the love of his life, his soul mate, the ethereally beautiful Denise Pendanx.  Denise was the first woman trainer in Europe, a pioneer who intuitively understood Jean and mirrored his own deep, insightful knowledge of horses.

In 1965 they emigrated to the United States, the next logical move for a Jockey who sought challenge and the next rung on the ladder to renown.  His brilliant style and intensity were rewarded in 1969 when he took the mount on the great Arts and Letters, riding the future Hall of Famer to victory in the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park.  

In 1972 the Cruguets returned to Europe for the racing season, where he won many Group 1 races, including the Prix Vermeille and Poule d'Essai des Pouliches in France and the Champion Stakes.  Following the 1972 season, and being lauded in the French newspapers, they returned to the US to further build on his successes.

In 1976, Fate conspired to propel the seasoned athlete to take the mount on the then-two-year-old Seattle Slew in the Champagne Stakes.  Nineteen-seventy-seven found Cruguet and Slew firmly entrenched in the racing Pantheon, as they jetted heavenward, racing undefeated toward the Triple Crown.  Resounding victories in the Wood Memorial and the Flamingo Stakes struck fear in the hearts of all would-be challengers.  This was far more than the pairing of two talented athletes:  this was the  physical, emotional and intellectual melding of two strong, unwavering spirits. 

The team's combined prowess; Slew's strong, long stride and Cruguet's singleness of purpose and inimitable skill lent a sorely-missed electricity to the sport.  Moving as one unit, the team informed the racing world that they could not be stopped.  One might speculate that the Triple Crown was claimed long before the first Saturday in May, 1977, as Fate would not be denied the powerful duo.  Their destiny was written in the stars, their impression, indelible.

Thumbnail image for Jean Cruguet Blanket of Carnations.jpg  

Jean Cruguet Belmont Crouch.jpg Jean Cruguet has given so much to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, I dare speculate that it cannot be measured.  His riding style, so low and tight on the back of his mounts; the sheer athleticism that raised the bar and set the example for up-and-comers.  His singleness of purpose, his profoundly deep love and understanding of the inner workings of the equine mind. 

And then there's the crop wave.  It's commonplace now, virtually every Jockey who crosses the finish line first stands in the irons and waves his crop (whip) in the air, a jubilant expression that connects those in the stands with the victory on the track.  Jean Cruguet was the first to do this, in the Belmont Stakes.  Twenty yards from the finish line, Jean knew that he and Slew had won the Triple Crown.  Both horse and rider knew, 60 feet from the wire, that they were immortal, the only undefeated Triple Crown team.

Jean stood in the irons at 20 yards, and waved his whip.  Some observers used this display as the opportunity to trash the great Jockey, to proclaim that he was arrogant and cocksure.  If it was a moment of braggodocio, the man can be excused.  It must have been a heady experience, to rise from a childhood of sorrow and abandonment, to this moment of being The Only.  Very few people--or horses--can go to their grave knowing that they were The Only...anything.  The fact is that Jean Cruguet is the only undefeated Triple Crown Jockey--and will no doubt hold that title for many years.  It's been 32 years--an entire generation--since that instant in time when he and Seattle Slew claimed that title.

So if Jean was, indeed, feeling a moment of supreme pride--who could fault him?  But I've discussed that moment with Jean, and I know, as should you, that he did what he did because his heart was filled with unspeakable joy.  He stood in the irons, got that-much-closer to Heaven--and in waving the whip, invited the fans at Belmont Park to share in the coronation.

It's no accident that his action has became a tradition among Jockeys:  he's become an archetype, a wild gladiator riding his Pegasus toward the sun.  And every Jockey on Earth wants to find her or his name among those of the gods.  Jean Cruguet should be in the Racing Hall of Fame--an earthly social construct--for surely his name is written in the stars, as he and his eternal mount set the example in Plato's Land of the Forms.
Thumbnail image for Jean Cruguet Belmont Win.jpg

 

 

 

4 Comments

| Leave a comment

Your article on Jean Cruguet is beautifully written and captures his glory. He is an amazing man and truly a talented jockey, who at age 70, still breezes horses in the morning,as well as jogging a mile each and every day.

Thank you so much for your kind words...thank you, from my heart. He IS an amazing man, and no doubt the BEST, most gifted jockey who ever rode a horse. The fact that he breezes horses and jogs at 70 is, well, it's Jean. He has more energy at 70 than anyone I know who's 40. (I still can't believe that he's 70, that just doesn't seem right...)

;)

Your writing is fascinating and leaves me wanting more. Can you tell us about the picture of the rearing horse at the top of the article?

Jean Cruguet is one of the greatest jockeys of all time. Thank you for the great article and support for his being in the Racing Hall of Fame. Jean rode, not because of his connections but because of his being a real jockey. One of the greatest disappointments in his life came the day the great Hoist the Flag was injured. He had become so at one with that horse that when Hoist the Flag was injured it was Jean who felt the deepest pain. The generations of great Hoist the Flag offspring is enough to know that Jean would have ridden two triple crown winners if that injury had not happened. Having Jean Cruguet in the Racing Hall of Fame would be a great asset to the Hall.

Leave a comment

Main Menu

Leave a Comment

M.E. Altieri

THE ALPHA MARE, commonly known as M.E. Altieri, is a writer/editor/activist who lives and breathes the art and sport of horse racing—both Arabian and Thoroughbred.
At the tender age of six months, her Grandmother plopped her on the back of a pony. (See photo.) Three years later, Mare first rode a horse—an American Quarter Horse—on her cousin's farm in Stephentown, New York. That same year her Mother and Grandma took her to Green Mountain Park, a now- (sadly) defunct Thoroughbred track in Pownal, Vermont. Next stop, Saratoga Race Course. The seed was planted, and a passion, born.
While she does have other interests (Medieval languages and theology, cats, tigers, etc.) none hold a candle to her passion for horses. She finds that horses are far-more intelligent, compassionate and kind than 99% of the people she meets. Mare's career is fascinating, if nothing else: in 2011, she served as Editor of a beautiful history book, The Purebred Arabian Horses of Iraq: Myths and Realities by Dr. Mohammad bin 'Abdul-'Aziz Al Nujaifi. She's contributed to several international horse racing publications, including Al Badia, Arabian Finish Line, Desert Mirage and Galopp Magasinet.
She's the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of f!lly Magazine-- the magazine by, for and about women in horse racing. f!lly will debut in 2013. Both Thoroughbred and Arabian racing--and women, f!llies and mare from all around the world--will be featured in the full-color, beautiful, historic publication. Magazines are the first of the media M.E. wishes to tackle: she's also writing a screenplay, and seeks the perfect venue and producer for her horse racing radio show. She's got the voice; God knows, she has opinions--she feels led to put them together and broadcast to the 51% of the racing fan base that's too-often been overlooked. (Hint: 51%...could it be, women?)
An Alumna of Mount Holyoke College, Mare hopes to use these media, including her blog here at Saratoga.com, to encourage women and girls to find their vocations in horse racing and to help make the world a more loving and nurturing place for all equines. When asked to identify her Mentor, the woman who encouraged her to follow her bliss, Mare names the great Penny Chenery. Through these various media projects, Mare hopes to do for other females what Ms. Chenery did for her--open doors, encourage and bless.


QUESTIONS?



Thoroughbred Racing in Saratoga

The Thoroughbred is a distinct, created breed of horse. Saratoga Springs, New York is a unique, pristine city in Upstate New York.

Put the two together, Thoroughbreds and Saratoga, and you have America's most prestigious, lushly beautiful and important racing meet. For six weeks every summer, the world's best horses, jockeys and trainers come together to compete for trophies, cash and fame.

In this blog, we'll discover All Things Thoroughbred and the lovely international community of horsepeople, both professionals and fans, alike who set up camp in this city. Some come for six weeks, only. Others are here from April through November every year, when the Oklahoma's open. Yet others trek to town to race their mighty steeds—then fall in love with the place; buy a home and move here.

The Saratoga racing family of humans and horses is a year-round endeavour. You think that all the horses all go elsewhere after Labor Day? Then this blog is for you, too.

(Is the reference, "the Oklahoma" lost on you? Stay tuned, you'll feel like a pro in no time.)

Welcome to the only experience on Earth that can boast of such otherworldly beauty and heart-stopping thrills, all in the same breath: Thoroughbred racing in Saratoga.