With the Triple Crown chase on, I decided to talk to someone who might know a thing or two about such things.
When I first met him, in John Esposito’s parking lot outside the gates of Belmont Park in the fall of 1976, his career was somewhere between the “Turnpike Turner” era and "The Only Trainer in History to Win a Triple Crown with an Undefeated Three-Year-Old" age.
Does Billy Turner think that Rick Dutrow will follow in his footsteps, and that Big Brown will follow in Seattle Slew’s?
Like Dutrow, Turner looks you dead in the eye.
“It’s time,” he said. “It really is."
It was touch and go for a while, said Turner, but it looks like she‘s going to be all right now.
Back then, Turner always was known as a great care-giver but was underappreciated as a trainer because he had the audacity to speak truth to power and was battling personal demons. His critics played politics with the off-track issues and so they never gave him his due as a horseman.
Turner lived his profession on the cutting edge. In the early 1980s he was one of the first local horseman to use acupuncture fairly extensively. He was also among the earliest to study the use of Equine Biomechanics.
“Gait analysis came later, but ultrasound allowed you to know that if a two-year-old worked faster than forty-nine or fifty, he’d come back with a [sore] shin. [Poor bone density] with a too-fast work might result in a condylar fracture.”
Big Brown has been compared to Seattle Slew because it’s been said both were beating up on inferior rivals during their Triple Crown campaigns. “Slew might not have been beating great horses, but this group seems to beat each other up all the time. I liked Pyro, but he fizzled out.”
And Big Brown? “I’m impressed,” Turner said. “I saw him go the track the other morning. He’s a big, strong son of a gun. Compared to Slew, Big Brown’s easy-going, tractable. You had to sit quietly on Slew and just nurse him along.”
Both colts had to work fairly hard to win the Derby but had an easier time of it in Baltimore. Both trainers took it one race at a time but neither took their eye off the big prize.
Turner told me that winter the Preakness could be the race that trips Slew up. At the beginning, the two weeks between Derby and Preakness was a concern for Dutrow, too. But both men trained their horses to win a Derby with the Triple Crown in mind. Training an undefeated horse is a special pressure all its own.
Turner has empathy pains not only for the pressures of winning but the fact that Dutrow is winning his battle with cocaine addiction. Turner is a recovering alcoholic.
“The drug period crippled an entire generation. It was the cocaine era. Sidney Watters lost a son, Dooley Adams, the great steeplechase jock, lost a son. Both Maloney boys. Rick is a survivor and a good horseman. Not every trainer can be a good horseman.
“When they came and took me out of here, I was given about a week or two to live. I was lucky. And when I got out of recovery, Mr. Ritzenberg gave me a horse, Mrs. Randolph, Mr. Polk. They all gave me horses when I first came back.
“One of the horses was Tell A Secret. She broke her maiden at Saratoga. She turned out to be the dam of Roses in May.”
So, will Big Brown do it? “The most competition will come from the Japanese horse. He’s a very good horse. And that mare [Better Than Honour]? She might be the greatest producer of our lifetime.”
A traditionalist, Turner has another reason to root for company in his special place in thoroughbred racing history.
“The original concept was to have a horse that was solid, mature and sound enough to show up on those three given Saturdays. Maybe if he wins it, they’ll stop talking about trying to change [the Triple Crown]. As it is, we’ve let the breeders off the hook."