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Ron Turcotte sat in his wheelchair looking at the eighth-mile pole in the middle of the Belmont Park paddock and thought back to the greatest day in his life: June 9, 1973.

"I saw that pole, looked around and I could see there was nobody near us," he said with a smile. "I thought, `I've got an eighth of a mile to go and I'm all by myself, I'd better not fall down."'Seventeen years to the day after Secretariat's heart-stopping 31-length Belmont victory in the world-record time of 2:24 over 11/2 miles, Turcotte will participate in a tribute to "Big Red," who was humanely put to death last fall at age 19 because of an incurable case of laminitis, a hoof disease.

Joining him for formal ceremonies after today's sixth race will be owner Penny Chenery and trainer Lucien Lauren. The pole Secretariat blazed past in the stretch will be auctioned off via sealed bids, with the proceeds going to the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation to research a cure to laminitis.

"I'm really pleased to be involved with this," Turcotte said. "Secretariat was the people's horse. It's hard for me to promise to be places ahead of time because I never know how I'll feel. This will be the first Belmont I've seen since 1979."

Turcotte suffered life-threatening and paralyzing injuries when he was thrown from a horse called Flag of Leyte Gulf on July 13, 1978, and has been confined to a wheelchair since. He suffers from chronic pain and nagging minor illnesses stemming from his weakened condition.

"I'm not feeling well right now, which is why I'm not being more enthusiastic," he admitted. "I've got a fever of 102 degrees and I've got some kind of an infection."

Turcotte's handicap prevented him from traveling to Kentucky to see Secretariat before the horse's death.

"I had a chance to go down there last May, but I came down with something," he said.

Turcotte learned in August from the Racing Form, which he still reads every day, that Secretariat was ill.

"Everyone called me when he passed away," Turcotte said. "It was like losing a member of the family." ---------

upi 06-08-90 12:31 ppd