Seattle Slew and Billy Turner

"First of all, he was just made right. He had the conformation, he had the bone, and he had a burning determination to run. It didn’t make a difference if it was a race or what, he just wanted to go out there and go, to use himself. In races he was an absolutely formidable competitor because there was no quit in him. Slew had so much energy. We would exercise him an hour a day – every day. In fact, we trained him the morning after the Derby before we loaded him on the plane just to get the energy out of him. "


He also had the mind that you find in a great athlete. After he began breeding, everybody said, “The Slews, they’re so intelligent.”  But that can be a problem for a trainer. When you’re dealing with a mind like that - if you insult them, you might not get any results. They might just say, ‘the heck with you,’ and decide not to run. That’s why some people just can’t train a good horse. Because people don’t know what they have, don’t know how to treat them, and they don’t run for them.”

From the first crop of freshman sire Bold Reasoning, and out of the debut mare My Charmer, Slew was offered at bid as a yearling in 1975. His untested pedigree received little attention, yet his presence caught the eye of West Coast entrepreneurs Mickey and Karen Taylor, along with veterinarian Dr. Jim Hill, and his wife Sally. Upon Dr. Hill’s suggestion, the partnership decided to bid on the rangy, immature youngster, and the hammer dropped at $17,500. Sent to Andor Farm in Monkton, Maryland, he was broken by Paula Turner, and then placed in training with Paula’s husband William H. “Billy” Turner.

Seattle Slew

Slew won all 3 of his races as a two-year-old, including a sensational 9 & 3/4 length victory in the Champagne Stakes. Then in 1977, he began a magical run which included wins in the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah, and New York’s classic Derby prep, the Wood Memorial. Riding a 6-race undefeated streak, Slew was the favorite to take the Roses. “That was probably the greatest race he ever ran in that he broke last in the field,” remembers Billy. “They figure he ran a quarter of a mile in :22.4, and by then he was just off the lead. To finish it off going a mile and a quarter after a first quarter like that – in the Derby, it had never happened before.”

Two weeks later he dominated the Preakness field; only the Belmont Stakes stood between him and immortality. “I was a little concerned that we wouldn’t get him settled enough to run a good mile and a half. But I trained him with that in mind the entire time. Sure enough, when all was said and done, that wound up being the easiest race for him.” 

Slew had done it. With Billy’s help he came forth to lay claim to America’s most grueling test of champions, the Triple Crown – but for Slew and his connections, the ‘Slew Crew’ as they were called, it wasn’t all a smooth ride. “Oh my gosh, newspapers and TV were comparing Seattle Slew with Secretariat. Well, Slew was undefeated, and there is a mystique about undefeated horses. That mystique eclipsed Secretariat right away, and people didn’t want to hear that. I got hate mail. Shucks, the fans really didn’t like the idea.” 

The reaction from the Secretariat camp only served to confirm what Billy had already known: Seattle Slew was one of the greatest racehorses the world had ever seen - and as Billy had learned years earlier, you never take a great racehorse for granted.

In discussing some of the Slew years and then the end of his time with Slew. Bill has this to say.

Seattle Slew"Then, how lucky was I to come across a horse like Seattle Slew. Interestingly, if I had had a big stable I would have never trained him because one of the reasons I got him was that I had a small stable.

He also had the mind that you find in a great athlete. After he began breeding, everybody said, “The Slews, they’re so intelligent.”  But that can be a problem for a trainer. When you’re dealing with a mind like that - if you insult them, you might not get any results. They might just say, ‘the heck with you,’ and decide not to run. That’s why some people just can’t train a good horse. Because people don’t know what they have, don’t know how to treat them, and they don’t run for them.”

Billy Turner knew what he had. He’d learned his craft from the some of the best horsemen in America, and they taught him to never insult a great horse. That was why he felt compelled to speak out shortly after Slew had captured the Triple Crown.

“I told national TV right after the Belmont that we were going to give Seattle Slew some time off and then get him ready for the Travers. Marge Everett had just bought Hollywood Park, and to get Seattle Slew out there she boosted the purse for the Swaps Stakes. She put up a bigger purse than any of the Triple Crown races and made a deal with the owners. Then it was dropped on me. I was vehemently against it. I knew that mentally, the horse was exhausted. Well, if the mind is there, he can be sore and he’ll run well, but if the mind’s not there, I don’t care how well he’s doing – he’s just not gonna’ run. I was a traditionalist, and didn’t see that times had changed. You had young owners with ambitious plans, and they said, “That’s what we’re going to do.”  So, I went along with the play.”

Slew had soundly beaten J.O. Tobin in the Preakness, but in the Swaps Stakes, J.O. Tobin went wire-to-wire. Slew finished 4th, some 16 lengths behind the winner. Turner explains, “I didn’t have to say a word. The press already knew that I was against going out there. Well, when things didn’t work out, the press blamed the owners.

Commercialism was something that had just come into racing. They (Slew’s owners) had made up T-shirts and bumper stickers, and had even wanted to parade the horse during the annual Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. I said, you’re making a big mistake. This was a great racehorse, and the traditional way of doing things, – well, you treat a good horse differently.

A fellow named John Phillips wrote an article for the Sunday New York Times Magazine. He had been covering the whole Seattle Slew thing from the beginning. He sent me the article and asked, “What do you think?”  I said, John, it’s accurate, but you know, that’ll be my job. He said, “ Well, then I won’t run it.”  But I told him the world might as well know. So it all came out in the Times, and my job didn’t last one week after that,. Yeah, that was the last straw.”

In December of 1977, Billy Turner was dismissed as Slew’s trainer. The series of disagreements regarding the horse’s care had driven a wedge between him and the Taylor - Hill partnership. Asked what he would do today if faced with a similar situation, Billy confided, “Well, now they do that with every sort of athlete there is, and you go along with it. The thing is, I would now know how to explain things in a way that any owner could understand.”  He laughs a bit, then flashes a wry smile before adding, “In fact, I could just use Slew as the example.”


 

Seattle Slew - Triple Crown

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