Haskin's Belmont Report: Billy, We Hardly Know Ya

Every several years, whenever a horse is attempting to sweep the Triple Crown, Billy Turner is summoned by the media to offer his take on the horse, the obstacles that stand in his way, and to reminisce about the great Seattle Slew, who under Turner’s guidance and expertise became racing’s only undefeated Triple Crown winner.

But there is something very wrong with this picture. If Turner, who is the only living Triple Crown-winning trainer, holds such a special place in history, accomplishing a feat never duplicated before or after, then why must he be dragged out of mothballs every once in a while like an old suit to be tried on and then put back in the closet?

Why has Turner been training in relative obscurity over the past several decades, eking out a living with only a handful of cheap horses?

Has Turner, now 72, forgotten how to train top-class stakes horses? He did after all train other talented horses in addition to Slew during his prime. Although Seattle Slew was a pure speed horse who was intent on getting the lead regardless of the pace and distance, Turner was able to get this impetuous colt to harness that speed and carry it a mile and a quarter and a mile and a half. Even he had to ask himself after Slew had blazed seven furlongs in a track-record 1:20 3/5 in his 3-year-old debut, “How am I going to get this horse to go a mile and a half?”

Well, his steeplechase background paid off and he was able to turn in one of the great training jobs of all time. And this was at a time when steeplechase trainers for the most part remained in their own sport and didn’t venture into the flats. Turner’s success on the big stage opened the door for other trainers in steeplechasing and show jumping, such as eventual Kentucky Derby winners Michael Matz and Graham Motion.

But despite his steeplechase background, Turner’s success was not restricted to distance races. In fact, it’s just the opposite. His record in shorter races would more than satisfy the stallion-seeking owners of today who are attracted to speed. He did after all win the Met Mile, as well as the Carter, Withers, Jerome, Fall Highweight, Tom Fool, and Bold Ruler.

Yet even with Turner’s accomplishments and his place in history, not a single major owner has supported him by offering him any of their well-bred classic hopefuls, even though he is one of the few trainers in the country who has proven he knows what to do when he gets one. Has his handling of Seattle Slew simply faded through the cracks of history, surfacing only when a reporter asks him about a horse on the threshold of a Triple Crown sweep and what it was like back “in the old days” with Slew?

In 2011, Turner’s horses made only 55 starts, with 53 of them coming in maiden or claiming races. Of those 55 starts, only one time was his horse the favorite, and in 30 of them his horses were 10-1 or higher.

Doug O’Neill, in all his wisdom, has called to Turner for advice on how to handle the pressure-packed days that await him over the next 10 days.

“He really impressed me,” Turner said. “He asked me the questions I asked the people in Kentucky when I went for the Derby. He wanted to know the ins and outs of training on a mile and a half racetrack, if he can use the paddock in the morning, and my thoughts on the gate crew. He’s very astute and asked all the right questions. He’s taking this very seriously.”

Some people have questioned O’Neill’s decision not to work I’ll Have Another between the Preakness and the Belmont, especially considering the last three Triple Crown winners all had extensive works, including one at a mile. But Turner feels that should not be a concern at all.

“There’s a big difference between I’ll Have Another and Slew,” he said. “The reason I worked Slew the way I did wasn’t for fitness, it was for his exuberance. I wanted to take a little of the edge off him. The one thing I didn’t want was for him to go out there and run his first three-quarters in 1:09 and change. With I’ll Have Another, he’s the kind of horse you can do anything with. He has speed if you want him to use it, but he doesn’t have to. In Slew’s case, everything we did was on a day-to-day basis. We had to deal with the physical aspect of training and the mental aspect. So you can’t compare Slew and I’ll Have Another. They’re two totally different horses.”

Yep, Turner sure has forgotten how to train a horse. In an era of the megatrainer and stables of hundreds of horses, is there not a place for a legendary horseman like Turner? Is it conceivable that owners with huge numbers of horses, most of them purchased for big bucks at the sales, have no desire whatsoever to give a few of them to the only living Triple Crown-winning trainer and the only trainer to saddle an undefeated Triple Crown winner, especially considering that no trainer has been able to sweep the three races in 34 years?

It is every owner’s dream to win the Triple Crown and join that special fraternity that includes Penny Chenery, Patrice Wolfson, and Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill, not to mention names like Calumet Farm, Belair Stud, and King Ranch. So, here available to them is the only trainer alive who actually has proven he knows how to fulfill that dream, and no one is interested.

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