Catching Up With Billy Turner, horse trainer
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Forty-three years ago this week, a white-knuckled young horseman sat in the stands at Pimlico Race Course, gripping his program as a two-year-old thoroughbred named Salerno breezed to a seven-length victory.
“What a thrill that was,” Billy Turner said of the win, his first as a trainer.
Ten years later, in 1977, Turner sent another of his charges – a dark brown colt with blue-collar roots – onto the same track, in the Preakness Stakes. Seattle Slew won his race, too. And the next one, which sealed the Triple Crown for Slew and thrust the curly-topped Turner into a coveted group.
Now 70, he is the lone surviving trainer of a Triple Crown winner, a distinction he rarely trumpets.
“I never really think about that,” Turner said from his home on Long Island. Then he paused.
“But I had an awfully good time doing it, didn’t I?”
Turner was 37 when he guided Seattle Slew through racing’s biggest minefield, sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Of the 11 horses to win the Triple Crown, Slew is the only undefeated horse to have done so. Winning the second leg was especially sweet, said Turner, given his start here as a trainer, and the fact that he had twice ridden in the Maryland Hunt Cup as a youth.
Moreover, Seattle Slew was quartered in Monkton as a 2-year-old while being “broken” (prepared for riding) by the Turners. So their arrival at Old Hilltop for the Preakness in 1977 was pretty much of a homecoming for the Derby winner and his entourage.
“I’d never seen so many reporters,” Turner said of the media swarm that greeted him at Pimlico. “Secretariat’s Triple Crown (in 1973) still had everybody stirred up. The place was overrun with high quality horse people, from owners to blacksmiths.”
While Slew’s 1-1/2 length Preakness victory brought plaudits for Turner, he said, “I could never appreciate it at the time because of the goal I’d set. I thought that if I didn’t win the Triple Crown, then I hadn’t won a race.
“There was no relief in winning the first leg, or the second. I had to win all three. I knew that horse had the ability to do it. All I had to do was to hold things together.”
Even Seattle Slew’s win at Belmont proved bittersweet for Turner. By year’s end, he’d been sacked by the horse’s owners, who’d bucked Turner’s plan to rest the colt awhile. Slew hit the track soon after the Belmont and lost badly.
The owners also thought Turner drank too much.
“They were right,” he said. For more than a decade, both his health and career deteriorated until, in 1991, he entered a rehabilitation center in Havre de Grace.
“I’d been literally living on alcohol,” he said.
Turner listened up, quit boozing and fought his way back in the business, starting at Laurel Raceway, where he began work as a trainer in 1992. One of his horses, Punch Line, won the Maryland Million Sprint Handicap in 1996.
That same year,Turner moved his base to Belmont Park, where he now oversees about 15 horses.
“When my owners left (the state), the pressure was on me to follow,” he said. “Believe me, there’s no place I’d rather live than Maryland.”
Not that he’s complaining.
“I’ve been sober for 20 years,” Turner said. “What’s left on my bucket list? To win the Triple Crown again. It can be done.”