The trainer of Seattle Slew ponders racing's future, and recalls his time with the sport's only undefeated Triple Crown winner.
Time was, the only way to properly celebrate a momentous win at Belmont Park was to raise a glass -- or several -- at Esposito's Tavern, a neighborhood pub located across from the track's stable gate on Plainfield Avenue. Esposito's was the racetrack's answer to "Cheers," a place where everybody knew your name and a race wasn't truly deemed official until Billy Turner bought a round.
It was to Esposito's that Turner repaired, on a glorious September day in 1976, after saddling Seattle Slew to win the Champagne Stakes by 10 lengths in a stakes record 1:34 2/5. Sitting at his regular corner table with a handful of friends and turf scribes, Turner bought the house a few rounds and eventually gave voice to what they were all thinking.
"This is one of those horses that could be a Native Dancer type," Turner said, alluding to the famed "Grey Ghost" of the American turf, who lost only once in his 22-race career. "There's no excuse for him ever being beaten."
Gone is Esposito's, a casualty of the off-track betting that claimed many of its habitués. Gone is the picket fence that John Esposito painted every year in the colors of the Belmont Stakes winner, a tradition that began after Seattle Slew made easy work of seven rivals en route to his Triple Crown sweep in 1977. Gone are most of Turner's mentors, among them steeplechasing legend Burley Cocks and Hall of Fame trainers Frank Whiteley and Sidney Watters, men whose advice Turner heeded when he elected to give Seattle Slew a break after the Champagne rather than run him in the richest 2-year-old stakes in the country.
Gone, too, is the only undefeated horse to win thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, a horse Turner, now 72, refers to simply as, "the old horse." Turner, better than anyone, knows Seattle Slew was a horse that changed lives: some for the better, one temporarily for the worse.
Today, Turner trains six horses out of Barn 60 at Belmont Park. His runners have yet to visit the winner's circle this year, and he currently ranks 4,607th among U.S. trainers. If there is a "big horse" in Turner's stable, it would have to be Pernice, a placid, dark bay grandson of Seattle Slew who broke his maiden on his 17th try last November. But with the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes looming -- and a Triple Crown on the line -- Turner is the go-to guy for interviews, photo opportunities even advice.
As the only living Triple Crown-winning trainer, Turner is also the one man who was able to do what 10 other trainers whose charges have since won both the Derby and Preakness could not
As the only living Triple Crown-winning trainer, Turner is also the one man who was able to do what 10 other trainers whose charges have since won both the Derby and Preakness could not: Keep a young horse at the top of his game through three hard races in the span of five weeks. Three of those horses who came up short in the long homestretch at "Big Sandy" were trained by Bob Baffert: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002).
There is a lanky grace to the 6-foot-2 Turner as he strolls through the Belmont clubhouse, smiling and tipping his trademark tweed cap to horseplayers and fellow trainers. Pausing in front of a wall adorned with photos of old Belmont Stakes winners, Turner's eyes find the old horse almost immediately.
"There I am, at the back," Turner said, pointing to a curly haired young man with one hand on his hip and the other resting companionably on the horse's rump. "This, and the Champagne, are the only two times I was in the winner's circle with the old horse. I only got in the photo if the campaign was over. It was a superstition I had."
Many cite Turner's work with Seattle Slew, a high-strung horse with energy to burn, among the greatest training feats in racing history. "If anybody else had that horse he would have been a nutcase," said Mike Kennedy, Seattle Slew's exercise rider and a close friend of Turner's for almost 50 years. "Slew was a very hyper horse, but Billy's so low-key and calm. And he has no ego."
Doug O'Neill, trainer of I'll Have Another, sought out Turner this week to pick the veteran horseman's brain about All Things Belmont. The two sat outside Barn 9, where the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner is stabled, and talked for 40 minutes.
"He's an astute horseman," Turner said of the California-based O'Neill. "He asked the same questions I asked when I went to Kentucky [to run on] a track I didn't know."
Beyond the immediacy of gleaning pre-race wisdom, perhaps what O'Neill really wanted to know is something racing cognoscenti have been asking for 34 years: Why has it been that long since thoroughbred racing has anointed a Triple Crown winner? How did the 1970s produce three Triple Crown winners -- Secretariat ('73), Seattle Slew ('77) and Affirmed ('78) -- after a 25-year drought? What did those horses have that their contemporaries do not?
The better question might be: What are contemporary horses allowed to have that those past champions were not?
It cannot be ignored that racing's last Triple Crown winner accomplished the feat before the advent of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix, which states began legalizing for use on race horses in the late 1970s (New York was the last holdout, finally allowing Lasix in 1995). Thoroughbred racing commissions are presently weighing the benefits of Lasix use versus the negative, but among horsemen, the debate is contentious. Some would like to see it banned because of its potential to significantly affect a horse's performance, while others view it as a purely therapeutic drug.
Turner believes indiscriminate Lasix use has dramatically weakened the breed. "In the past, owners bred to run," Turner said. "You'd never put anything back into the gene pool that had basic infirmities. You'd never think of breeding a mare that bled. Or a sire that bled. Forget about it. You'd [geld] him."
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Turner calls the emergence of 2-year-olds in training sales in the early 1980s "the worst thing that has happened to the breed since time began." Originated in 1952 at Hialeah Park near Miami, 2-year-olds in training sales lacked the cachet of yearling auctions until the early 1980s, when foreign buyers began making regular forays into Kentucky for the yearling sales. As yearling prices skyrocketed, the 2-year-old sales became a viable alternative. I'll Have Another was purchased for $35,000 at the 2011 Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's 2-year-olds in training sale by his owner, J. Paul Reddam.
"The only thing that's important [to the sellers] is getting a fast eighth-of-a-mile out of the horse before the sale," Turner said. "That horse is breezing faster than it would ever run or be worked if any good horseman trained him. When you send them out that fast you're causing cartilage damage you can't see at the time. Six months, a year later, the [bone] chip you come up with? It started right there."
The 1980s also gave rise to a new phenomenon: the mega-trainers, those who oversee 100 or more horses, many at different facilities. "Tracks used to never let you have more than 35 horses," Turner said. "Then they started letting D. Wayne Lukas and others have more, thinking it would bring more quality horses in. That has certainly neutralized a very large contingent of our good horses. When you have that many good horses, the number you can really keep track of and campaign you can count on both hands."
Turner sighed. "Nobody has any confidence in their position and what they're doing," he said. "There are practically no horsemen left. Somebody that knows horses knows they can always shuffle through. The rest of them, they're just relying on the veterinarians and the blacksmith and the exercise rider. It's not fun anymore."
Nobody ever accused Billy Turner, a former steeplechase rider who began training flat horses in 1966, of not knowing how to have a good time. "Back then, there was a lot of drinking in all aspects of the horse business," Turner said. "You drank with owners, you drank with jocks at the end of the day you'd go to the bar, tell some lies, and so forth."
The thing that made him different from all the rest was that killer instinct. He just had utter disdain for other horses.
”--Trainer Billy Turner on Seattle Slew
Turner didn't have to embellish when it came to Seattle Slew. "From the time we first breezed him, I wasn't thinking about the Kentucky Derby," Turner said. "I was thinking about the Triple Crown."
Kennedy, who emigrated from his native Ireland to the U.S. in 1963, was only mildly whelmed by the 2-year-old colt Turner introduced as "Baby Huey" in February of 1976. Turner's first wife, Paula, who saddle broke Seattle Slew at Andor Farm in Monkton, Md., had taken to calling the unremarkable bay colt "Baby Huey," because of his comically large head, ample hindquarters and short, fuzzy tail that reminded her of the cartoon duck.
"He was just another horse that came off the farm," Kennedy, 73, said of the Bold Reasoning colt, who had been purchased for $17,500 at the 1975 Fasig-Tipton yearling sale by two young couples, Karen and Mickey Taylor from White Swan, Wash., and their friends, Jim (a New York racetrack veterinarian) and Sally Hill. "But then we breezed him. He had so much raw talent, you can't even imagine. And did he have a shoulder on him. It was like sitting on a brahma bull. When he would get excited they would start to expand, swell up. It was just amazing."
After Slew's dazzling performance in the Champagne, Turner elected to put him on the shelf and look ahead to the spring classics rather than ship him to Maryland for the $140,000 Laurel Futurity, then the most lucrative juvenile stakes in the nation. "I had a lot of good old horsemen telling me it was not in a 2-year-old's best interest to run them longer than a mile," Turner said of the decision [shared by all in the Tayhill group] to bypass the 1 1/16-mile race.
In hindsight, the four-and-a-half-month layoff (from the Champagne to Seattle Slew's 1977 debut in a March 9 allowance race at Hialeah) may have been the most prudent decision Turner made regarding the colt. Interestingly, both Secretariat and Affirmed were also rested for four months from the end of their respective 2-year-old seasons to the launch of their sophomore campaigns (I'll Have Another was laid up for five months after a sixth-place effort in the 2011 Hopeful Stakes, but forced the issue after exiting the race with shin problems). The dawn of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, and its 1 1/8-mile Juvenile race that now carries a purse of $2 million, has made the decision to pull back even more difficult for owners and trainers of precocious 2-year-olds.
"If you're not training the hell out of these young horses, it gives them a chance to grow up," Turner said. "If they grow, and you already have a good 2-year-old, you're going to have a better 3-year-old. If they don't grow, you'll have more of the same, and the horses you were beating at 2 might catch up with you."
Incredibly, from his first published work at 2 through the Triple Crown races, Seattle Slew posted only 19 official works. "We never had to drill him," Turner said. "We knew what we had. We did a lot of jogging and a lot of walking. He'd be out of his stall for two hours or more every morning, walking through the barn area or doing something on the track. He kept himself fit."
Seattle Slew was administered phenylbutazone (Bute), an approved anti-inflammatory, only once during his 17-race career. Turner thought it prudent to allow the colt to run on Bute for the Preakness Stakes because the Pimlico track was exceptionally hard that week.
In preparation for the Belmont, Turner made a decision that likely would have backfired with another horse: He gave Seattle Slew two 1-mile drills on successive Saturdays. "Why did I do that? I felt he needed it to go the mile and a half," Turner said. "Not because he wasn't fit because I didn't want him to go the first three-quarters in 1:09. We had to take something out of him to make him last. He was just that good."
After the Belmont, Turner says he expected Slew to be given a well-deserved break. His farrier, Dave Pearce, was pulling Slew's shoes when Turner got the call from Mickey Taylor telling him the colt would be heading to California to run in the inaugural Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, just three weeks after the Belmont. Seattle Slew suffered his first career defeat in the Swaps, finishing a well-beaten fourth to J.O Tobin, a horse who had run fifth in the Preakness.
"After the Belmont, the old horse came out of the race physically, he was sound," Turner said. "But he was mentally exhausted. The thing that made him different from all the rest was that killer instinct. He just had utter disdain for other horses."
Residual resentment over the Swaps debacle, as well as Turner's escalating drinking problem, resulted in Seattle Slew being moved to the barn of Doug Peterson, a 26-year-old assistant to Bob Dunham, in November of 1977. Seattle Slew retired in 1978 with a record of 14 wins from 17 starts and $1.2 million in earnings. He was a champion all three years he raced, and Horse of the Year in 1977.
Turner's marriage to Paula fell apart, as did his second. Sober since 1990, Turner and his current wife, Patti -- a former jockey and exercise rider who broke 1993 Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero -- live in Malverne, N.Y., only 10 minutes from Belmont.
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There's nothing quite like a leisurely drive down Old Frankfort Pike in Lexington, Ky., to soothe the jaded soul of a disenchanted racing fan. With spring on the wane, most of the 2012 foals are already on the ground. A few tentatively peer out at the world from under their mothers' bellies. Others have developed enough self-confidence to wander off from their dams and investigate the competition, an exercise that often begins with sparring and ends with an impromptu match race back to the mares.
Three Chimneys Farm, on the Midway end of Old Frankfort Pike, was Seattle Slew's home for 17 years. His career as a stallion was nothing less than brilliant, and included champions A.P. Indy (1992 Horse of the Year, Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic winner), Slew O'Gold (champion 3-year-old colt in 1983; champion older male in 1984); Swale (1984 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner) and Landaluce (undefeated champion 2-year-old filly in 1982). Seattle Slew is also the sire of Solar Slew, dam of two-time Horse of the Year Cigar (1995-96).
Slew O'Gold, from Seattle Slew's first crop, was Three Chimneys' first stallion, retiring to stud here in 1984. Also owned by Tayhill, Slew O'Gold was joined the following year by his father, who had been standing at Spendthrift Farm since his retirement from racing.
Three Chimneys proprietor Robert Clay laughed as he recalled the brief conversation that led to Seattle Slew's relocation.
"We were at Saratoga," Clay said, easing into a chair in his office at Three Chimneys. "I walked by Mickey's box, and he called me over and asked if we'd be interested in standing Slew. I told him, 'I'll fly home tonight and bed down a stall.'"
Clay, a Kentucky native who has been active in the thoroughbred industry since the early 1970s, envisioned a "non-factory, boutique stallion farm with six stalls" when he laid the groundwork for Three Chimneys' stallion division 28 years ago. His creation is an equine version of Isleworth: 400 thoroughbreds with 2,300 pristine acres at their feet and 100 employees at their beck and call.
Among the nine stallions based at Three Chimneys is I'll Have Another's sire, Flower Alley. I'll Have Another is from Flower Alley's second crop to race, and Clay hopes this is only the beginning.
"After the Derby, Flower Alley started getting cards and flowers," Clay explained, gesturing toward the cards still lining the fireplace mantel. "Jessica Steinbrenner [a thoroughbred owner and daughter of the late Yankees owner] sent a wreath of roses as big as this couch. After the Preakness, she sent him a wheelbarrow full of carrots and apples."
Derby week began on a low note for the Three Chimneys family. Their prized stallion, Dynaformer, was euthanized on April 29 after suffering an aortic valve rupture two weeks earlier. The 27-year-old stallion, whose stud fee was $150,000 at the time of his death, sired 25 Grade 1 winners and 18 millionaires, among them the ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.
Clay acknowledged that, Triple Crown winner or not, thoroughbred racing is in the midst of a public relations crisis that will force breeders to make tough decisions. He is in agreement with Turner on the Lasix issue, and disappointed that much of I'll Have Another's bid to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner has been overshadowed by the alleged indiscretions of his trainer. Last week, the California Horse Racing Board issued O'Neill a 45-day suspension (to begin no earlier than July 1) related to a high TCO2 (total carbon dioxide) level detected in a post-race test on one of his horses. It was the third time an O'Neill-trained horse was discovered to have traces of an illegal performance enhancer at a California racetrack; he was also fined and suspended for a similar offense involving the horse Stephen's Got Hope in the 2010 Illinois Derby.
"I'm for drug free racing," Clay said. "As a breeder, we have a hand in it. We should join the rest of the world and phase it [Lasix] out. It's going to take a long time, because we've been doing it a long time."
Seattle Slew died on May 7, 2002, the 25th anniversary of his Kentucky Derby win. In retirement, he was visited often by the Taylor and the Hill families, as well as Mike Kennedy, who once brought his boots along and took the champion for a gallop.
"They told me 'Watch it, he kind of scoots off when you get to the end of the paddock,'" Kennedy said, laughing. "It was the same thing he used to do at the half-mile pole every day when he changed leads."
Turner was able to spend time with Seattle Slew a few months before his death. Clay remembers standing under the light-drenched rotunda in the stallion barn with Turner, chatting, when suddenly they were interrupted by a low nicker. Turner walked slowly over to the old horse's stall.
"I didn't touch him," Turner said. "He wasn't a lovey-dovey horse. He stood above all that."
Turner cleared his throat. "But, boy," he said, his voice cracking slightly. "That really did it for me."