Trainer Billy Turner passed on Saturday's Kentucky Derby. Maybe next year, he said. Maybe next year he'll have a reason to spend the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
In all the years he's taken thoroughbreds to the races, only once has Turner saddled a horse for the Derby. Twenty-five years ago, Seattle Slew was dropped into his lap and Turner trained him to the Triple Crown.
Slew was an unlikely champion, purchased for the bargain price of $17,500 by Mickey and Karen Taylor, and Dr. Jim and Sally Hill. Most of the horses they purchased were sent to California. Slew and Big John Taylor were shipped to Turner in Maryland because the owners felt they needed a trainer who would bring them along slowly.
''I don't hurry my 2-year-olds,'' Turner said. ''A $17,000 horse is a $17,000 horse, a cheap horse. In a lot of stables, he'd be overlooked.''
Turner preached patience. In Slew, however, he had a horse in a hurry. And it didn't take the trainer long to recognize that.
''He was a big, gangly colt, very immature, just a yearling,'' Turner said. ''But he had good size and good bone structure. The angles were right. He was a rawboned animal with structure to grow into a horse that could run.''
''A lot of horses have all those things and don't run.''
Early on, Turner brought him to Belmont Park for some workouts. It was there that the trainer got the first inkling of what a special horse this would be. Slew was on the track with an older filly named Clover for his first breeze.
''We knew what she would do,'' Turner said. ''She was coming back. We thought he'd learn from her.''
At an eighth-of-a-mile, Slew looked over, saw Clover and got the idea he was in a race. He was off in a flash, and the exercise boy had all he could do to ease him.
''If he had not been pulled up, there'd be no Seattle Slew,'' Turner said. ''All he wanted to do was run. He wasn't fit enough or mature enough.''
For the next 2 1/2 months, Turner didn't work the horse. He knew what he had. The trick now was to get him under control.
''I knew I had a horse who was different from the rest,'' he said. ''I knew when you see a horse go that fast with no effort, that's different. He was a good student with tremendous energy and phenomenal ability. All I had to do was control it.''
Turner brought Slew along slowly, refusing to ask for too much, too soon from him. ''I don't want a 2-year-old faster than 11 seconds for an eighth or 23 for a quarter,'' he said. ''He wasn't mature enough or strong enough to handle more than that. He had blinding speed and burning determination. My job was to get him to accept competition and other horses.''
Slew won his first two races in New York in 1976 and then romped in the Champagne Stakes with the fastest mile ever by a 2-year-old.
The next year, he won the Flamingo and the Wood, both times running away from the field and eased over the finish line by jockey Jean Cruguet and now the word was out. Turner had the Derby favorite.
Slew went into the Triple Crown series undefeated and came out of it the same way, the only horse ever to do that. He was jostled at the start of the Derby, then recovered to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Two weeks later, he ran the second fastest Preakness ever at the time, winning in 1:54 2-5. He shrugged off a muddy track at the Belmont Stakes to complete the sweep.
''I never went to the winner's circle for the Derby or the Preakness,'' Turner said. ''I did at the Belmont. My goal was the Triple Crown. Otherwise, I had not done my job.
''To win that, you have to show up on three Saturdays with no excuses.''
The owners wanted to run Slew in the Swaps Stakes in July but Turner resisted, insisting the horse had earned a rest. There was a split, and Slew was turned over to a new trainer.
He raced through 1978, even beating Triple Crown winner Affirmed that year in the Marlboro Cup. After retiring to stud, first at Spendthrift Farm and then at Three Chimneys Farm, Slew has sired 101 stakes winners. He is 28 now, recovering from a second delicate spinal surgery, and still eying the mares.
Turner went to visit a few years ago.
''I hadn't seen him in four or five years,'' he said. ''I was talking to the stud manager when he heard my voice and came to the front of his stall.''
Then Turner heard a low, guttural sound from the horse, what racing people call a nicker. It was as if Slew was saying, ''Hey, pal, long time no see. How've you been?''
The trainer was touched.
''I knew he knew,'' Turner said. ''It brought a tear to my eye.''
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