Behind the Photo: Jean Cruguet

By September 8, 2012
Jockey Jean Cruguet aboard a rearing horse.

Jean Cruguet's life has many dramatic moments, but this one was particularly photogenic.

“Many people new to racing are unfamiliar with the name of Jean Cruguet, and this is a pity.  No, make that a sin,” began a 2009 Saratoga horse racing blog entry. Well, I saw this image, and loved it so much I had to get the story behind it. Look how the horse is lifting the one groom right off his feet!

Although I could not find the name of the horse, in the saddle is Cruguet, the legendary French jockey who won the Triple Crown in 1977 aboard Seattle Slew. (That horse, it just so happens, was owned by Jane Forbes Clark, who was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame this year, having famously sponsored Leslie Howard and, more recently, Mario Deslauriers. She also owns horses that compete internationally in dressage and combined driving, and at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games became the first owner with horses competing in three disciplines.)

Cruguet certainly had an interesting life. The Saratoga.com racing blogger The Alpha Mare put his career nicely in perspective when she wrote: “In an era before racing purses had reached the stratosphere–Cruguet earned in excess of $51 million for the owners of his mounts.” An astronomical figure, especially considering  the prize for the 1977 Kentucky Derby was only $227,500.  “Cruguet earned that money the old-fashioned way:  by racing his butt off, and more-often-than-not, finishing first,” the Mare continued.

His beginnings were humble. Born March 8, 1939 in Agen, Lot-et-Garonne, France, his father abandoned his family when he was just five. Unable to cope, his mother placed him in an orphanage. From 10 to 16 he boarded at a Catholic school, then worked for two years at a local thoroughbred race track, launching his career as a jockey.

Jockey Jean Cruguet being interviewed for Fox Television.

Jean Cruguet in 2009.

Interrupted by a mandatory stint in the French Army at age 18, he served in the Algerian War. After being discharged, he returned to racing and rode for trainer Francois Mathet. It was at that early stage in his career he met the woman who would become his wife. Denyse Pendanx was one of the first women to exercise horses on the racetrack in Europe, making headlines for her efforts. Eventually, she broke new ground as one of the first women with her own training stable in France.

In 1965 the couple moved to the U.S., settling in Florida, where they married and began working out of Hialeah Park near Miami.

Cruguet has always credited Pendanx with guiding his career. “She thought I was a genius,” he told one interviewer. His first step-up came when he was hired by the legendary trainer Horatio Luro. In 1969 he got another break when tapped to ride Arts and Letters in the Metropolitan Handicap, known as the “Met Mile,” which they won, at New York’s Aqueduct. The horse went on to win six of the most important races in New York that year and was inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame, and Cruguet’s stock continued to rise.

But it was in 1970 that Cruguet began breathing rarified air, when through a friend of Pendanx’s, trainer Sidney Watters Jr., he got the ride on the Forbes Clark’s brilliant two-year-old colt Hoist the Flag. In 1971 the horse was undefeated in six starts, and a Triple Crown hopeful. Then, during a routine workout at Belmont Park where he was getting ready for the Gotham Stakes, a prep-race for the Kentucky Derby, the horse was seriously injured.

Jockey Jean Cruguet on the cover of Sports Illlustrated.

Cruguet's famous 'victory pump' on his way to wining the Belmont Stakes.

Hoist the Flag had been a Triple Crown hopeful, but now, after a simple misstep, he had a smashed pastern and fractured canon bone, his career was over. (Through a remarkable combination of bone grafts and pins, the horse’s life was saved and he went on to become an exceptional sire. The injury was very similar to the one Barbaro suffered in 2006, requiring him to be euthanized.)

The Cruguets returned to France, where he saddled up on the champion filly San San, who helped him end 1972 as the second top-earning jockey in France. Leveraging his high profile, the family once again moved to the U.S.

In 1976 he was on his way to his second shot at racing’s triumvirate when trainer Billy Turner hired him to ride the bay colt Seattle Slew. Nicknamed “Baby Huey” in early training due to his clumsiness, Seattle Slew became the first undefeated horse to win the Triple Crown. His 1977 record holds to this day.  (The last horse to achieve Triple glory, 1978’s Affirmed, had two losses that year).

In a show of bravado still written about today, Cruguet―leading the pack by four lengths in the Crown’s final jewel, the Belmont Stakes―stood in his stirrups several strides before the finish line and riding with his left rein only, raised his right arm high into the air, pumping his whip in a victory wave. The track was a muddy mess that day, and Turner at the time said he was horrified. “I’m just glad he didn’t fall off. I’ve seen other jocks do that and fall off.”

Cruguet retired from riding in 1980, at age 41, to join his wife as a full-time trainer, but he was back in the saddle two years later. His last major Grade I Stakes victory was on Hodges Bay in the 1989 Canadian International Stakes at Woodbine.

Eventually he and Denyse relocated to Versailles, KY, making appearances in support of the Old Friends racehorse retirement and rescue facility. He largely disappeared from the public eye in 2003 after his wife suffered a debilitating stroke that left her unable to speak or even move, Cruguet devoted himself to her care, a role that would last seven years.

Vintage portrait of Denyse Pendanx Cruguet

Denyse Pendanx Cruguet had an unusual career for a woman in the '60s and '70s: Thoroughbred trainer.

In September 2010 Denyse Pendaux Cruguet died in their home at age 80. “She was the greatest horsewoman I’ve ever known,” Cruguet told the online newsletter Chicago Barn To Wire in 2011. “We came to this country together in 1965, and if it hadn’t have been for her, no one would even know me today.”

During that same interview Cruguet called Hoist The Flag “the best horse I ever rode, by far. It wasn’t Seattle Slew. The first time I ever got on Hoist The Flag, as a 2-year-old, I told everyone I knew that I was going to win the Kentucky Derby with this horse. The only reason I didn’t say ‘the Triple Crown’ was because I was so new in this county I didn’t even know what the Triple Crown was. I’d never even heard of it.”

As recently as 2011 Cruguet planned a “one race comeback” (at age 72!). Slated to ride a friend’s three-year-old filly at the Keeneland Racecourse Spring Meet in April, he postponed the effort due to bad weather (and, reportedly, concern about the youthful friskiness of the horse). He then flirted with an attempt to ride at the August Arlington Park Meet, in a special “Legends” race to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, but due to health reasons he had to bow out of that as well.

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1 Comment for “Behind the Photo: Jean Cruguet”

  1. Brenda

    -I knew I liked him for a reason………we have the same birthday. THX for the story!!!! Your the best!!!!

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