Billy Turner is rooting for Big Brown in Belmont Stakes on Saturday. As the only living trainer of a Triple Crown champion, he would like Maryland native Rick Dutrow to join the exclusive club.
"It has been a long time," Turner said. "It's time for somebody to win the Triple Crown, or it will get too discouraging to try."
In 1977, Turner's horse, Seattle Slew, became the 10th winner of the Triple Crown. At the time, Turner trained his horses in Harford County, and he still trains at Belmont Park.
"It's getting pretty lonely up here," said Turner, 68. "The year after Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown, there was a luncheon for Triple Crown winners. Laz Barrera, who trained Affirmed; Lucien Laurin, who trained Secretariat; Jimmy Jones, who had Citation; and myself were all there.
"It was fun," he said. "A lot of fun. ... If they held a luncheon today, it would be just me. The food would be good, but the conversation would be pretty boring."
Dutrow will try to earn a luncheon invitation when he sends Big Brown to post in the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes. Big Brown, who easily won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness to improve to 5-0, is not unlike the big, almost black son of Bold Reasoning, who came out of the Belmont with a glistening 9-0 record.
Seattle Slew died on May 7, 2002, at age 28. But as a 3-year-old, he was much like Big Brown, wanting to do too much on the racetrack. And Turner, like Dutrow, was careful not to overwork him.
Besides their talent, the two horses also share the distinction of being undefeated going into the race, something shared with two other horses, Majestic Prince, 9-0 before the Belmont in 1969, and Smarty Jones, 8-0 before the race in 2004. Neither could keep his record perfect.
Now Big Brown will try.
A glorious day
June 11, 1977, the day Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown, was a perfect day for horse racing. Clear skies, a light breeze and temperatures hovering near 70 degrees. A fast Belmont track waited. A huge crowd of fans and reporters looked on.
"I enjoyed it," Turner said. "The coverage of horse racing was probably at its peak then. There was still the excitement of Secretariat a few years before, and Seattle Slew built on that. Every newspaper had one or two people covering the Triple Crown. Howard Cosell was there. I met so many people. It's not the same today. Sad in a way."
But on that perfect June day, Turner had something special in his charge. His horse had had a fine morning jogging out and, as usual, was full of himself.
"Big Brown is very tractable," Turner said of the current star, who seems almost to sleep while being saddled. "But Seattle Slew was a very hyper horse. He just wanted to go out and do things. There was no end to him. You had to work the edge off him without overdoing it."
Sometimes that meant a little one-upmanship, jockey Jean Cruguet said from his Versailles, Ky., home.
Cruguet had been in the paddock with a crush of owners, media and fans, waiting for the star of the race to arrive. He was thinking about what he would do in the starting gate, a little worried about the break because Slew was so powerful and so sharp.
Like Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, Cruguet believed if the break was good, his horse would win.
While others in the paddock were worrying about Seattle Slew - Where is he? Is something wrong? - Cruguet wasn't.
"Billy liked to play games with the competition," said Cruguet, who at 69 is still working horses in the morning. "I knew they were coming. Billy had said, `They aren't going to start the race without him [Seattle Slew].'"
Turner was in the tack room watching the television coverage. He had noticed, over the weeks leading up to that moment, crowds turned on his horse.
"He fed off the energy," Turner said.
Because of that, the trainer didn't want Slew in the paddock long. He had timed how long it would take to get Seattle Slew there and saddled and had decided to wait until the last minute.
"I watched until they couldn't stand it anymore," Turner said, laughing at the memory. "We walked him over in eight minutes. Saddled him in one. When we passed Roone Arledge, who was head of ABC, coming in, he was thrilled: `Bill, Bill, just perfect. You wait until the stage is set, then put on the show. It's what they want. Suspense!'"
Perhaps the only ones there not feeling the suspense were Cruguet, who knew from "the first time I put my [butt] on his back" that Slew was a special horse, and Turner.
When he saw Slew, "a big sloppy, lazy colt but with a beautiful way of going," work with an older horse for the first time, he knew he had his big horse.
"I just knew immediately he was different from anything I'd ever seen," Turner said.
And when Seattle Slew won the crown, Turner got an extra bit of satisfaction. The second-place finisher in the Derby and the Belmont was Run Dusty Run, owned by the same family that had owned Dust Commander and taken him away from Turner before the horse won the 1970 Derby.
"Talk about karma," Turner said.