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Jean Cruguet and AP ArrowJean Cruguet with A.P. Arrow
(Image : Leigh Willson)

“1977 US Triple Crown Winning Jockey”

If there’s any virtue in hardship, it’s that it makes us appreciate the good times when they come around, and there are any number of stories among the champions of the business, political and sporting worlds of people who grew up tough. How many kids have emerged from poverty with a greater hunger than their coddled contemporaries, how many rags-to-riches stories are there of people who’ve been driven by the memories of their deprivation and their envy of those who had it all?

Just as France’s “impregnable” Maginot Line was overrun by German invasionary forces in the spring of 1939, a toddler who was to inscribe his name into thoroughbred lore, was born to an impoverished French family in Agen. At the tender age of 5, Jean Cruguet was placed in an orphanage after his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother destitute. She had no choice, and from 10 to 16, the young Cruguet lived at a secondary school run by Catholic priests, where he faced all sorts of abuses, not the least because he was the smallest guy in the school. At 16, his size became his greatest asset, as an associate of his grandfather offered him work at a thoroughbred racetrack. A budding career in its embryo stages as a jockey was interrupted by mandatory military service in the French Foreign Legion in Algeria. Cruguet returned to thoroughbred racing after four years, and replaced the army-bound future champion, Yves St-Martin at the all-conquering stable of Francois Mathet, famed for his association with the Dupre horses which were to form the foundation in later years of the Aga Khan’s powerful breeding enterprise. A chance liaison led to his marriage to the supremely talented horsewoman, Denyse, a pioneering female in the French racing industry. Later in life, Jean acknowledged her abundant skills of horsemanship, when he said she was “the best horse I ever rode”. They soon decided to take their chances in the United States; it was the beginning of an explosion.

Cruguet had hardly arrived when he was offered the plum position of stable jockey for the celebrated conditioner, Horatio Luro, famed for polishing the talents of one of America’s greatest racehorses and certainly the world’s greatest stallion of all time, Northern Dancer. In 1969 he gave notice of things to come when he replaced Roberto’s rider, Braulio Baeza on the future Hall Of Fame inductee, Arts And Letters, charging home in the time-honoured Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park. In 1971, he was connected with the horse he claimed was the best he’d thrown a leg over thus far, coaxing Hoist The Flag to an unbeaten two and three-year-old campaign. Hoist The Flag suffered a career-ending injury in his preparation for the Wood Memorial in the lead up to the Kentucky Derby; the decision to pack him off to stud at the Hancock’s Claiborne Farm denying the colt a shot at the Triple Crown. That was the beginning of a highly productive career at stud where his progeny included the dual Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe champion, Alleged. The cruelty of fate raised its head again, when Hoist The Flag broke a leg at a time when his stud life was just beginning to blossom.

Little did Cruguet realise that there were even bigger fish to fry in the United States, as he and his wife decided to return to France for the 1972 season; this time he landed with his proverbial “bum-in-the-butter”, as he swept the major Group One races for fillies including the Prix Vermeille and the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches in France, as well as the Champion Stakes in England and wound up second in an abbreviated calendar in the French Jockey’s Championship. In the final session, he strapped his saddle over the back of the champion San San, whom he rode to all her wins, including the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth II Stakes for the storied Angel Penna Snr, bar one, and that was the only one that mattered to a Frenchman. He was prevented by injury from taking the ride in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and the filly duly obliged for the flamboyant Countess Bathiany.

Jean Cruguet
Career Record 

Travers Stakes 1968
Metropolitan Handicap 1969
Toboggan Handicap 1969
Lawrence Realization Stakes 1969/1970/1975/1978
Cowdin Stakes 1970
Laurel Futurity 1970
Prix Vermeille 1972
Poule d’Essai des Pouliches 1972
Champion Stakes 1973
Manhattan Handicap 1974
Stuyvesant Handicap 1974
Alabama Stakes 1975/1983
Hopeful Stakes 1975/1976
Champagne Stakes 1976
Mother Goose Stakes 1976/1977
Flamingo Stakes 1977
Wood Memorial Stakes 1977/1984
Kentucky Derby 1977
Preakness Stakes 1977
Belmont Stakes 1977
US Triple Crown 1977
Futurity Stakes 1978
Washington DC International Stakes 1978/1993
Canadian International Stakes 1978/1989
Jerome Handicap 1979
Ladies Handicap 1979
Saranac Handicap 1979
Withers Stakes 1979
Blue Grass Stakes 1983
Tremont Stakes 1983
Coaching Club American Oaks 1984
Dwyer Stakes 1984
Knickerbocker Handicap 1985/1986/1988/1992

Cruguet paid us a surprise visit on Sunday, having been advised by any number of Kentucky horseman, that if he was to make the journey to South Africa, he was compelled to visit Summerhill. He tells us that his childhood reminds him constantly that life gives you one chance, and you need to make the best of it while you have your faculties about you. He and Denyse returned to the United States in 1973, and it wasn’t long before the diminutive Frenchman was setting the tracks of America alight again. The crowning moment came in 1976, when he teamed up with Billy Turner to ride the two-year-old colt Seattle Slew, who’d at $17,000 had been pretty much overlooked at the sales. “Slew” cruised to victory in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, crowning an unbeaten season, and claiming the Juvenile champion’s title, as well as putting his hand up as a legitimate contender for the Triple Crown. To put this into perspective, the previous Triple Crown winner was Secretariat in 1971, and before him you’d have to go back to Citation in the 40s. The most recent Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978, and no horse or rider since has been good enough to do it.

Seattle Slew wins 1977 Kentucky DerbyWatch Seattle Slew winning the 1977 Kentucky Derby
(Image : Racing Archives - Footage : Awis Dooger)

Seattle Slew warmed up for the Kentucky Derby with facile victories in the Wood Memorial and Flamingo Stakes (both Group Ones) on his way to the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs. His running style was on the lead, and as he took his place in the stalls for the 103rd renewal of America’s most famous race, he was the only unbeaten aspirant for the Triple Crown in history, never headed for a single yard in any race before. He jumped awkwardly however, and for the first time, he missed the break: within a hundred yards there was just one horse behind him, and Cruguet knew he was in trouble. He shook the reigns for a moment, and surged through the field to be second before the horses entered the clubhouse turn, then proceeded to destroy his field in the closing 600 metres with a spectacular display of power galloping. It was the same story in the Preakness Stakes, and while Cruguet maintains to this day that Seattle Slew’s best trip was at a mile, his class carried him unchallenged to heroism in the Belmont Stakes, to complete the third leg.

In a moment which still occupies the columns of journals more than 35 years down the road, attracting praise and derision in equal measure, with more than 30 yards to the finish line, Cruguet raised himself out of the saddle in triumph in the manner of a gladiator, extending his right arm over his head and saluting jubilantly to an equally jubilant mass numbering well over 150,000. It’s against the rules, we know, but this was a Triple Crown hero in the true sense of the word, and in any event, there was nothing in sight to alter the outcome.

Seattle Slew
Career Record

Champagne Stakes 1976
Wood Memorial Stakes 1977
Flamingo Stakes 1977
Kentucky Derby 1977
Preakness Stakes 1977
Belmont Stakes 1977
Woodward Stakes 1978
Marlboro Cup 1978
Stuyvesant Handicap 1978
US Champion 2-year-old Colt 1976
US Triple Crown Champion 1977
US Champion 3-year-old Colt 1977
American Horse Of The Year 1977
US Champion Older Male Horse 1978
Leading Sire in North America 1984
North American leading Broodmare Sire 1995/1996

While Cruguet was equally effective on both American surfaces, he was without peer on the turf, and a year later he was on board Mac Diarmada, whose victories in the Washington DC International and the Canadian Turf Championship saw him voted Champion Turf horse. The journeyman announced his retirement at 41 in July 1980 to join his wife as a full-time trainer, but the lure of riding had him back in the saddle two years later. His last major Grade One Stakes victory came aboard Hodges Bay, again in the Canadian International at Woodbine. Today he lives in historic Midway just outside Lexington in the vicinity of one of the world’s great stallion stations, Winstar Farm, and the late Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum’s Gainsborough Stud. It’s no coincidence that the Woodford Bourbon Distillery is in the vicinity. For many years after his retirement, he made guest appearances for organisations such as Old Friends, a retirement and rescue facility for pensioned thoroughbreds. He almost completely disappeared from the public eye when he became the caregiver to his wife Denyse, when bedridden from a stroke in 2003, until she passed on in 2010 at age 80.

At 74 he remains active, working horses daily at the track, and he’s in excellent shape for a man who came off horses more often than he’d care to remember. He puts that down to a determination to make the number one box his home, and the fact that it often involves calculated risks which turned nasty. His pluck, his natural intuitions, his athleticism and dare we say, his upbringing, took him to the winner’s circle countless times, yet you know this is a man who remains comfortable in his own skin, “I crossed the line in front in more than 7000 races, but the truth is, I only won 500 them. Good horses did the rest”.

A couple of hours with Cruguet is riveting, and he speaks easily of the legends that forged the golden years of the game, Penna, Maurice Zilber, (for whom he rode the great Dahlia), Luro, Bill Mott, Woody Stevens and Charlie Whittingham. When you ask him to name the greatest horse of all time, and you toss in the names of Secretariat and Affirmed, he’s unhesitating: “There was none better than Slew. He could do a mile in 1 minute 31, and seven furlongs in 1 minute 20, and there’s no horse in history could go with that”.

If it’s at all possible, Cruguet offers that Slew’s legacy at stud may even have eclipsed his feats at the races. The dominant sire-line of the current era comes courtesy of his son A.P. Indy, and we owe it to Slew and his masterful rider, that we have A.P. Arrow at Summerhill today.

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