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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

BILLY TURNER’S PASSING: A DEVASTING LOSS, PROFESSIONALLY AND PERSONALLY

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 4, 2022 – The 1976 Saratoga racing season was winding down. Late one morning during the final week, a friend, clocker Marty Katz, who left us too soon, sought me out in the press box:

“I saw a horse this morning that’s going to get us out for life,” Katz said excitedly, “but we’re going to have to wait until we get back to Belmont.

“I was over at Oklahoma late this morning and I spotted Billy Turner who was about to work some dark bay on the grass. I didn’t know who it was. I’ve only heard that Turner had a two-year-old that could really run. So, I put my watch on him.

“Nine and four! Nine and four!” Katz repeated. “And he did it easy.”

“OK, what’s his name?”

“I’ll tell you when we get back to Belmont.”

Finally, word came: “He’s in tomorrow, fifth race,” Katz said.

I called Cousin Sal. “Come to the track tomorrow and bring money, enough for the both of us,” I said. “Why, what’s up?” he asked.

Instead, I gave Sal the Katz treatment. “I’ll tell you when you get here. Just make sure you’re here for the fifth race.”

The following spring, in my Newsday debut column on May 1, I predicted Turner’s two-year-old champion of 1976, Seattle Slew, would win the Triple Crown.

So filled with hubris and naivete was I, never considering that none of the previous Triple Crown winners did so while undefeated?

“Turnpike Turner,” the sobriquet he earned as a steeplechase rider who traveled up and down the northeast corridor in search of a live mount, learned horsemanship under the tutelage of legendary steeplechase trainer, Hall of Famer W. Burling Cocks.

Turner eventually outgrew the saddle and the lifestyle and set out to become a horseman. He had the background and the skills, a patient man who put the horse first, long before that notion became a latter day cliché.

Turner’s specialty was allowing good horses to develop at their own pace, become stakes winners and, if good enough, possible champions. So what kind of horse is this that can win his first three starts by an aggregate 18-1/4 lengths?

As a Newsday columnist and racing analyst, I had a head-nodding relationship with Turner but never a serious conversation. Needing to know more about Slew after the maiden win, I learned that he often had cocktails at Esposito’s Tavern after the races.

Fatefully, we arrived at the same time one evening and spent time talking in the parking lot. I congratulated him on the maiden debut and said not since Ruffian had I seen a more impressive first-out performance.

“You may have just seen the best horse anyone will ever see in a long time,” he dead-panned.

Subsequently I visited the barn often and while I tried to remain objective, it was difficult. Slew and Turner had me under their spell.

As a race horse, Seattle Slew wasn’t the kind one could nuzzle up to. He always was always on go, a tightly coiled spring, a hot yin to Turner’s cool yang.

Turner is not given to hyperbole, preferring a dry wit, soft voice, and an easy smile to make his point. One morning, e.g., we were talking about the chances of a horse he had entered in that day’s first race.

“Can’t talk now,” Turner said. “Meet me over at the spit box and we’ll talk later.” The “spit box” is backstretch speak for the testing barn, a required stop for winners after they’ve won a race.

We met later that night and many times, swapping tall tales, racetrack stories mostly. On some occasions, there were lunches and early cocktails, as if the ride with Slew would never end.

Seattle Slew had some issues that winter at Hialeah but Turner kept that down low and still managed to win the Grade 1 Flamingo, stretching the win streak to five and aggregate win margin to 31-1/4 lengths. He decided not to train him hard into the Wood Memorial.

Turner, quietly confident he could win the Kentucky Derby, said that his dream, what he was put here to do with this horse, was the Triple Crown. It was right there in front of him. But, first, the Derby.

Seattle Slew–from the wrong side of the pedigree tracks and with owners who rankled the establishment and shedding good will by the day–was in the grips of an assistant starter when the Derby latch sprung. Many thought Jean Cruguet was lucky to stay aloft.

Instead, from behind a veritable wall of horses, Cruguet pointed Slew toward a narrow seam between horses and the ‘Black Stallion’ bullied his way through, taking a narrow lead from the outside into the clubhouse turn.

The ride exemplified the kind of confidence Turner had in Cruguet, who had many critics at the time. Said the trainer: “Cruguet is the perfect rider for this horse. They are both fearless, and that gives the horse confidence.”

Slew’s sizzling charisma was such that he started drawing sports crowds. It got so crazy at times with fans, allowed to be in close proximity to the next super horse, that one actually reached and touched him, reported a colleague.

Slew got so anxious in Kentucky that he was a hot, lathery mess on the walk from the Churchill paddock into the post parade. Some knowledgeable veterans were concerned that he had lost the Derby before it even started.

Turner believed Slew could go all the way but that made him anxious, worried that a mistake by him could get the horse beaten. Media marketing was new then and Slew-hype began to outrun Slew-horse. T-Shirts, caps, and ‘Black Stallion’ headlines were everywhere.

After his Derby win, many persisted that he was overrated and the Preakness featured a Maryland-bred that could match Slew stride for early stride. This is the day someone will look Slew in the eye. Cormorant had the kind of ability and speed to do so.

At the time, Turner confided “I’m more worried about the hard race and the two weeks [between starts] than about another horse.”  

The two speedsters hooked up and put on a great show until time came for Seattle Slew to assert his will through the stretch. Two down, one to go.

At the end of the day, Turner used Slew’s Wood Memorial win as a prep for the Triple Crown. For a young horseman to play that level of equine chess with a horse some thought could be on Secretariat’s level, it was a steamy pressure cooker.

But now, a history-making Triple Crown had been won and it was time to pull the shoes, maybe freshen over the summer. It turned out to be quite the opposite.

The owners, looking at an easy payday and Hollywood Park appearance money, overruled their history-setting trainer and sent Slew 3,000 miles to the court of J.O. Tobin, a serious “now horse” running out of his stall for Laz Barrera, 22 days post-Belmont.

Turner went to California with Slew and the “Slew Crew” but the rift between the owners and trainer grew wider by the day. Worse, the owners turned Slew into a circus horse for West Coast VIP photo ops.

Acepromazine, a commonly used tranquilizer, helped keep the hot-wired colt on the ground, draining whatever energy remained after the Triple Crown.

Following the embarrassing loss, the owners forbade Turner to speak to the press, some blamed Cruguet, but the relationship got worse. Turner dove deeper into the bottle, his drinking way passed the sociable stage.

Ultimately, he was fired and replaced by trainer Doug Peterson, the kind of business decision that’s often made in this game but also to resolve irreconcilable differences. Worse, the owners drew a new line in the sand, only this time Turner fought back.

Prior to the 1979 breeding season, Turner filed a breach-of-contract complaint against the original owners, Jim and Sally Hill and Mickey and Karen Taylor, seeking 10% of Slew’s $12 million syndicate price and an annual breeding season for life.

Three years after Slew’s Triple Crown season, Turner developed Czaravich into a major stakes winner, including the 1980 Metropolitan Handicap, among his other graded stakes winners. Turner never carried a barn larger than 30 runners.

Turner retired in 2016 but was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years later. On the final day of 2021, Turner passed peacefully in his Reddick, Florida home with wife Pat at his side.

Turner’s life was touched by triumph and tragedy. The mind’s eye sees him at peace, leaning up against the door-jam of his barn office under his cap, looking down the shedrow, smiling.

Glory Days…well they’ll pass you by photo credit Joseph DiOrio

This loss is profoundly sad on a personal level because I can never repay the debt that I owe this man and the champion he helped develop. They gave me a life. How does one put a price on that?

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15 Responses

  1. Thanks for this, John. I knew, respected and liked Billy as well, but my time with him was spent almost exclusively on the backstretch.

    You gave people a glimpse of the insane pressure under which he trained Slew; save the Madison Square Garden story for another time!

    Marty must have played it close to the vest, given the generous $5.20 mutual. Oh, and if there were a couples Hall of Fame, Billy and Pat would have been high on the list of honorees. The trainer of Seattle Slew, complimented by a woman who galloped Mr. Prospector!

    All the best for the new year,

    Tink

  2. Tink, thanks for this, and your memories of Billy, the quintessential good guy.

    There was just so much to write, his story was so rich, but I wanted people unfamiliar with that era to realize what he had done under a heated microscope that would have fried many. The MSG story was a beauty! Will get around to that someday I suppose.

    One thing, though, the mutuel was even more generous than 8-5. I think he opened that way, but drifted to 5-2–without need of help from batch bettors.

  3. Thanks for the correction, John. Crazy price for a horse of that ability, but there have been much bigger ones on fast horses, of course.

  4. Fantastic writeup – thank you so much for posting your experiences with Turner and Slew. When it comes to great reading, there is nothing that comes close to reading horse racing memories.

  5. Thanks Doc, it seems like many people don’t have the same feeling about that as people of our generation do.

    I was texting with Mark Berner today and explained this story went about five different ways in my head but I settled on telling a younger fan a story they might not know.

    I wanted to pay tribute to Billy and thank him publicly for what he meant to me at a time I was starting out and thought I knew all there was to know.

    As one ages he realizes that he knows less and less every day. This game humbles kings. Glad you enjoyed it, a labor of love for me…

  6. What a great writeup on “my” horse, The Slew. Loved him to pieces. To me, he is the greatest, most complete thoroughbred racehorse/stallion ever. He did it all during his entire career, every facet of it. None greater. None.

    1. Funny Jon, Bill Nack, a mentor, was of course Secretariat’s biggest booster and we’d have these friendly arguments about which horse was better. And I always said consistently, “Bill, just can’t see another horse looking him in the eye that he couldn’t outfight head to head. If I ever get to heaven…

      1. Thank you, John. You are so right!!! Secretariat would have had to kill Slew to ever get past him. Slew was a fighter, much more so than was Secretariat Thanks much to Billy Turner. I hate how he was treated. And I hate that Slew was subjected to the California trip almost immediately after the Triple Crown….and being tranquilized so many times in those three weeks. What a disaster. With proper handling, I sincerely believe Slew could have been stayed undefeated throughout his racing career. I met the Taylors at Three Chimneys when they were there looking after Slew, their son, after his first spinal surgery. I liked them. It’s just sad about the falling out with Billy Turner and some questionable decisions on their part on Slew’s handling. But they loved Slew so much. They never left his side right to the very end. They were right there with him in his stall cradling his head. When he died was heartbreaking for them and for his groom, Tom Wade. Slew was everything to them and to Tom. I understand the reasons they had for moving Slew from Three Chimneys to Hill n’ Dale after his second surgery, but I hate that he is buried there, a place that wasn’t his home. And now I read that Hill n’ Dale have moved to a different location. It’s like Slew is just alone. I’m sure his burial place is nicely maintained, but to me, it just isn’t where he should be.

        1. Jon, thanks for filling in part of the rest of the story. I liked the Taylors, too, and the Hills, though they were a little haughty at the beginning.

          They had a little rift, too, my surmise is that the Hills may have seen the Taylors as bandwagon interlopers as, of course, Dr. Hill plucked Slew out of the sale.

          But I too saw evidence of the love the Taylors had for the colt who gave them the ride of their lives.

  7. I saw Slew in the JCGC where he lost by a nose to Exceller under Willie Shoemaker. Some consider this his best race, even in defeat, as he was passed in the stretch and fought back to just lose at the wire. A gutty performance. I think there was a story about the owners wanting Slew to be in a commercial that required him to be near the Cross Island Parkway. I remember him running at The Big M and losing to Spectacular Bid. I think I have that right. One of the great ones. Thanks for the memories.

    1. C, quite obvious that I love this guy and agree that his JCGC was his greatest performance, considering the field, circumstances that forced him into a 1:09+ pace duel going a mile and a half then to come again. If it wasn’t his best race, it was the one who made him an immortal.

      And it was Dr. Patches, ridden by Cordero, who beat him at The Meadowlands. Quite the story indeed.

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