Crown mold­ing BILL DWYRE

Amer­i­can Pharoah and Bob Baf­fert have a chance to join horse rac­ing royalty, but Billy Turner re­mem­bers how Seat­tle Slew made his­tory in 1977

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - bill.dwyre@la­ Twit­ter: @DwyreLATimes

EL­MONT, N.Y. — Some­times, you can’t even get it from the horse’s mouth.

You’d like to, be­cause this week is the run-up to Satur­day’s most re­cent Triple Crown at­tempt, the 14th since Af­firmed last won in 1978. All 11 Triple Crown win­ners have died, the most re­cent be­ing Seat­tle Slew on Ken­tucky Derby day 2002, the 25th an­niver­sary of his suc­cess­ful run for the roses.

The next best thing is OK, be­cause, other than Mr. Ed and Zeny­atta, horses don’t ex­press them­selves well to hu­mans.

That next best thing is pretty lim­ited too. Only one trainer who guided a thor­ough­bred to all three win­ners’ cir­cles in the sport’s most pres­ti­gious and chal­leng­ing se­ries is still alive.

That would be Billy Turner, 75, the man who fed the oats, sched­uled the works and planned the strat­egy so Seat­tle could Slew all Triple Crown com­ers in 1977 and be­come the sport’s 10th mys­ti­cal leg­end.

They held the draw for Satur­day’s Bel­mont Stakes at Rock­e­feller Cen­ter on Wed­nes­day. There, names and num­bers were drawn out of hats, train­ers of Bel­mont en­tries ut­tered mostly un­quotable noth­ings and Bob Baf­fert beau­ti­fully nav­i­gated the me­dia siege.

There was also an ap­pear­ance by Turner, who still trains at Bel­mont Park and who, when there is a Triple Crown at stake, al­lows the rac­ing PR peo­ple to strut him out again.

“They bring me be­cause of all the damn lies float­ing around,” Turner says, grin­ning.

In the crush to get at Baf­fert, few in the me­dia gave Turner much thought

and the damn lies went un­chal­lenged.

Baf­fert doesn’t know what will hap­pen with his over­whelm­ing fa­vorite, Amer­i­can Pharoah. But he knows that the nightly news, the never-end­ing blogs and the daily sports pages have an in­sa­tiable ap­petite for this Triple Crown stuff. So he car­ries on with the pa­tience of Job and enough fresh wit to keep them happy.

“All I know,” Baf­fert says, “is that this is like Pat Ri­ley al­ways said: ‘There is only win­ning and mis­ery.’ ”

Baf­fert has had three previous shots at a Triple Crown, and two close calls. In 1997, his Sil­ver Charm led with the fin­ish line at hand when a su­perb ride by Chris McCar­ron, fully aware that Sil­ver Charm was not passed eas­ily, took Touch Gold wide and out of Sil­ver Charm’s view to catch and pass Baf­fert’s horse.

A year later, Baf­fert’s Real Quiet had his nose in front of Vic­tory Gal­lop a few jumps be­fore the fin­ish line and a jump af­ter it, but those were the wrong jumps.

In 2002, Baf­fert’s War Em­blem, rid­den by the same jockey who will take Amer­i­can Pharoah into the gate Satur­day, Vic­tor Espinoza, stum­bled out of the gate and never had a chance.

With the Triple Crown, Baf­fert has been there and al­most done that. With Billy Turner, there is no al­most.

He was 36 when he was pre­sented with a huge, mus­cu­lar 2-year-old with a stub­born way, and yet, a gen­er­ally agree­able per­son­al­ity. Turner wore a tam of­ten de­scribed as a news­boy peak cap. He still does.

He got the train­ing du­ties from own­ers Jim and Sally Hill and Mickey and Karen Tay­lor. Jim Hill, who had been Turner’s vet­eri­nar­ian, had iden­ti­fied the horse as well-bred and shared the pur­chase with the Tay­lors, who came from a wealthy log­ging fam­ily in Seat­tle.

Turner says it didn’t take long to re­al­ize how spe­cial Seat­tle Slew was.

“He’d run track-record times when he was just train­ing,” Turner says. “His works were faster than any of the other horses ran in a race.”

Turner also says it be­came clear early that his chal­lenge would not be to get Seat­tle Slew ready for the Ken­tucky Derby or Preak­ness.

“I pretty much knew he was bet­ter than any­thing they could throw at me for those,” he says. “The chal­lenge was go­ing to be the Bel­mont, the mile and a half, and I started train­ing him for that, long be­fore Triple Crown sea­son even be­gan.”

The train­ing wasn’t so much for dis­tance or fit­ness, but for har­ness­ing of Slew’s strength and en­ergy.

“We had a three-eighths-mile chute at Hialeah” in Mi­ami, Turner says, “and we’d jog him 10 min­utes one way, then 10 the other way.”

That was just to get the spunk out of Seat­tle Slew.

For the 1977 Bel­mont, Turner trained Seat­tle Slew for con­trol, not speed or fit­ness. He wanted to hold him to 1 minute 12 sec­onds for three­quar­ters of a mile. That was slow (Sec­re­tariat did 1:09 4/5) and al­lowed suf­fi­cient en­ergy for the long slog home from there.

“It rained the night be­fore,” Turner says, “and that slowed them down so much that the three-quar­ter-mile time was 1:14.

“When I saw that, I knew we were home free.”

Seat­tle Slew, with a four-length vic­tory, be­came the first, and only horse to date, to win the Triple Crown with an un­de­feated record. He even­tu­ally ran 17 races, won 14 and fin­ished sec­ond twice. His only out-of-the-money re­sult was the Swaps Stakes at Hol­ly­wood Park three weeks af­ter the Bel­mont.

Slew fin­ished fourth. Turner had op­posed run­ning again that soon and even­tu­ally lost the horse to another trainer, he says, over that con­tro­versy and an ar­ti­cle in the New York Times that painted him as a good guy and the own­ing Tay­lors less so.

Seat­tle Slew had been pur­chased for $17,500.

“What he did,” Turner says, “was show the world that, for a few thou­sand bucks, you could go out and get your­self the best horse in the world.”

Seat­tle Slew was, in the most pos­i­tive horse rac­ing con­no­ta­tion, a freak. Many think Amer­i­can Pharoah is the same.

Were that to be, rac­ing’s cur­rent Triple Crown legacy would be fa­vor­ably re­vised: Two liv­ing Triple Crown train­ers and one more wel­comed ad­di­tion to the sport’s le­gendary pedestal.

Julie Ja­cob­son As­so­ci­ated Press

AMER­I­CAN PHAROAH, who will try to win the Triple Crown on Satur­day, nips a groom’s cap dur­ing a bath at Bel­mont Park.

Julie Ja­cob­son As­so­ci­ated Press

BOB BAF­FERT, left, has had three previous chances to win the Triple Crown, most re­cently in 2002. Billy Turner made the most of his op­por­tu­nity with Seat­tle Slew in 1977.

Char­lie Riedel As­so­ci­ated Press

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.