Billy Turner will be in the stands at Belmont Park on Saturday, a shock of silver hair — and a slew of memories — tucked beneath his familiar Irish-peaked cap. At 72, he is the only living trainer of a Triple Crown champion.
I’ll Have Another could change that, with a victory in the Belmont Stakes. And Turner, who took Seattle Slew to the top in 1977, likes this colt’s chances.
“He’s a really good horse,” Turner said of I’ll Have Another, who has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. “He bounces out onto the track, ears up, with a swagger in his step. And he gallops a pretty darn good lick.
“I think he’s going to run a really big race.”
Thirty-five years ago, Turner — fingers crossed, palms sweating — asked the same of his own dark brown colt. Seattle Slew responded with a four-length win in a race in which he led, wire to wire.
“I remember watching it on the clubhouse apron, just below the finish,” Turner said. “Slew was a powerful animal. I knew he would win if the absolute unforseen didn’t happen, like the rider falling off.”
Seattle Slew, bought on the cheap ($17,500) at a yearling sale in Kentucky and broken on a farm in Monkton, became the 10th Triple Crown winner — and the only undefeated one. A year later, Affirmed checked in at No. 11.
No three-year-old has run the table since. Now, more than three decades later, Turner is the only trainer left to tell people how it was done.
Last week, at Doug O’Neill’s behest, Turner walked from his own training barn at Belmont to that where I’ll Have Another is quartered, and met for nearly an hour with the horse’s trainer.
O’Neill “asked all the right questions,” said Turner, who trained in Maryland during much of the 1990s. “We talked about the paddock, the gate crew, stuff like that. I told him he’d done right, bringing his horse here early, because nobody with even a piece of a brain ever shipped in the day before and won this race.
“[Hall of Fame trainer] Woody Stephens, who stabled here all of the time, won five Belmonts in a row (1982-86) — and two or three of those winners were just [regular] horses who were used to this track.”
Ask Turner if he sees any of Slew in Saturday’s favorite, and he’s quick to answer.
“No similarities,” he said. “I’ll Have Another is a horse on whom you can sit quietly in the morning. He jogs off, gallops at a nice pace and comes home happy.
“Slew? He was explosive all of the time. All he wanted to do was run. We trained him for an hour, every day. No horse trains that much now. But he had so much energy, he didn’t know what to do with it.
“My job was to get him under control so he wouldn’t run himself to death.”
Seattle Slew had an aura about him, said Jim Hill, a veterinarian who, with another couple, Karen and Mickey Taylor, acquired the yearling at auction. Others saw an immature and clunky colt. Hill thought otherwise.
“He had a presence and, to me, he looked like an athlete,” said Hill, now a trainer at Belmont Park. “Tremendous bones. Good angles. When they brought him out at the auction, he didn’t look worried. He peered off in the distance. When he got stirred up, he had an intense-looking eye. He was very self-possessed.”
The purchase was, Hill said, “the best deal I ever made. Slew was extremely high-energy, and not easy to train, but Billy just tuned in . . . and did a superb job.
“Obviously, we never dreamed he’d win the holy grail of racing. But we had damn few slip-ups and, every day when it counted, Slew was right there.”
Sometimes, while training the horse, Turner wondered who was teaching whom.
“When you looked into his eyes, you got the feeling that he knew more than you did,” he said. “I remember [jockey] Angel Cordero saying how, in the Derby, he had For The Moment ahead, on the back side, with Seattle Slew just off the lead. Cordero said that when he glanced back, what he saw gave him pause.
“‘Slew wasn’t looking at my horse,’” Cordero said. “‘He was looking at me.’”
Turner put Seattle Slew’s look into words.
“He was saying, ‘Don’t mess with me or I’ll make trouble for you,’“ Turner said. “And nobody ever messed with him. His determination was almost scary.”
Seattle Slew died in 2002, at age 28, on the 25th anniversary of his Derby victory. His progeny won more than 100 stakes races. He stood at stud at Three Chimneys Farm in Lexington, Ky., where his old trainer visited him several years before his death.
“I hadn’t seen Slew in 12 years,” Turner said. “He was standing in the back of his stall, but when he heard my voice, he gave a low nicker and walked to the front. The farm’s owner, Robert Clay, was dumbfounded. He said the horse had never shown that kind of interest in anyone.”
As Turner watched, a groom led Seattle Slew to the breeding shed and past the stall of Spectacular Bid, another Hall of Fame horse who’d won both the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. As he passed Spectacular Bid’s stall, Turner said, Seattle Slew hesitated and stared at him. Bid’s response?
“He went to the back of his stall and just stood there,” Turner said. “It’s like Slew had said, ‘I’m still boss hoss.’ ”
— Baltimore Sun
Saturday, post time 6:40 p.m.
Coverage begins at 5 p.m. on WRC
(Channel 4), WBAL (Channel 11)