Ron Turcotte is fighting for his legs in a New York hospital.

Word from Belmont Park yesterday was that the 36-year-old jockey "still has no sensation in his lower extremities."

"We're sweating it out," a friend of the family declared. "The doctors are waiting 72 hours after the neurosurgery before making any comment. The first 24 hours are generally considered the most likely in which dramatic improvement will be shown, though, and those 24 hours are gone. We can only pray."

Surgeons repaired a fractured vertebra lodged against Turcotte's spinal cord, then fused the sixth thoracic vertebra to the 10th to keep them erect and away from the spinal cord.

The 4-year-old filly Flag Of Leyte Gulf clipped the heels of Water Malone shortly after the start of the feature race at Belmont Thursday, throwing Turcotte to the ground. The Canadian was injured for the third time this year. He had only recently returned to action after breaking several ribs in a spill at Northlands Park near Edmonton, Alberta. This spring he fell at Aqueduct, and there are observers who believe Turcotte never completely recovered from that mishap.

In May, Turcotte's brother, Rudy, broke his collarbone in a spill at Pimlico that killed jockey Robert Pineda.

Turcotte is married, with four children. He is a solid citizen, a veteran of 15 years at the top of American racing, and one of the strongest jockeys of our time.

Success has never changed Turcotte, as it has the large majority of jocks who suddenly become rich and famous from the thoroughbred sport. Turcotte was very much a country boy, a former lumberjack, when he came out of the woods of New Brunswick in Canada to begin his riding career. He is still the same. While other riders lead the expensive life at such glamorous way stations as Saratoga, the Turcottes can be found in their camper, taking to the Adirondacks for fishing, hunting or hiking at every opportunity.

It would be stretching the truth to say Turcotte was among the elite of his profession in terms of ability, even though his name has been linked closely with many an outstanding stakes winner. Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez, Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay and more recently Steve Cauthen get the call for the hot young prospects developed on the nation's back-stretches.

Turcotte, instead, had what he calls his "steady customers" who trusted him implicity. One such customer was Lucien Laurin, and it was Laurin who gave Turcotte the leg up on Riva Rdge and Secretariat in the glory years of 1972 and 1973.

Turcotte survived that experience, and that is saying something because riding horses for Penny Tweedy was not an easy-going experience. Laurin often was under extreme pressure from the owner of Meadow Stable, especially when Riva Ridge or Secretariat lost a race.

"I'm just not going to say anything to anybody anymore," Turcotte decided the day before Secretariat captured the Arlington Invitational. "If they (the owner of trainer) say the horse worked good he worked good, if they say three and two are six then three and two are six. I say what they say and you can quote me on that."

Laurin had the knack of publicly defending Turcott after he rode four races (as he did on Riva Ridge in Florida) while criticizing him when the hockey's only fault was that he was set up on a horse short in preparation (as Secretariat occasionally was).

This topsy-turvy relationship reached one of its peaks the morning after the 1972 Preakness at Pimlico, in which Riva Ridge was defeated by the front-running Bee Bee Bee in the slop, finishing fourth. Laurin was made, contending that Turcotte had spent most of the race looking at Braulio Baeza, on Key To The Mint, rather than riding his own mount.

But Turcotte kept working for Laurin and Tweedy, although there were times the owner reportedly tried to have the trainer make a switch. And Turcotte delivered the goods, taking the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes with Riva Ridge and the Triple Crown with Secretariat.

Five out of six in two years isn't bad.

"All I had to do with Secretariat, when he was right, was to hold on, which was most of the time," Turcotte said. "They way he took me around the clubhouse turn in the Preakness was unreal. It wasn't my idea to go from last to first place that way, it was his.

"I don't think we'll ever see another like him," the jockey added. "Certainly I won't."

Secretariat was Horse of the Year in 1972 and 1973 and Horse Of Our Time in the opinion of many. Since then, Turcotte's career has been much less successful, but what does one do for an encore after the kind of back-to-back seasons he had back then?

"Maybe that's it," he said recently, brooding slightly. "Common sense tells you those were my best years, no matter how well I do again."

Undoubtedly so, but no one wants to see any jockey's career end the way Turcotte's now threatens to.He has been an outstanding jockey and, more important, an upstanding man. Let us hope that Friday's neurosurgery will eventually permit his return to competition or, at least, to a normal life.