Secretariat

A Farewell to Billy Turner

Those who are regulars here can expect to read mostly feel-good stories with feel-good endings. This is not one of them. Who Billy Turner was and how he treated people and shared the gift of Seattle Slew is indeed a feel-good story, but where life led him is not. To those reading this, it is not meant to feel sorry for Turner, but to open one’s eyes to the sometimes harsh realities we must face. ~ Steve Haskin

A Farewell to Billy Turner

By Steve Haskin

 

Seattle Slew was not just another all-time great; not just one of a small iconic group of horses to sweep the Triple Crown. And not just one of the fastest horses of all time, For 41 years he was the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in the history of the sport, plucked out of a yearling sale for a meager $17,500. His story was meant to be one of racing’s great Cinderella fairy tales, and the first few chapters read as such, as his fame spread around the world. But then, somehow, the story began to unravel, as did all the major characters. Billy Turner, the true hero of the story and the architect of what would become arguably racing’s great equine dynasty, should have used his masterful training job with Seattle Slew as a springboard to success, stardom, and a place in racing’s Hall of Fame.

But that didn’t happen. Despite eventually conquering the alcohol demons that got him fired as trainer of Seattle Slew, a move he fully understood at the time, Turner’s career plummeted into racing’s abyss, a dark and empty place inhabited by cheap, mostly unsound, New York-breds, and even those dwindled down to four or five until the Thoroughbred finally was gone completely from Turner’s life. All that was left was the memory of one of the greatest horses of all time and their magical journey together through the Triple Crown.

At first, it looked as if Turner’s success would continue when he won the 1980 Metropolitan Handicap with William Reynolds’ Czaravich. But that would be his last hurrah.

As the mega-trainers came along with hundreds of horses, dominating the sport, there was no longer room for Billy Turner, despite his unmatched credentials. Many thought for sure they would have given him a lifetime access to good horses and a pathway to success. But credentials, no matter how impressive, are worthless if no one acknowledges them. And racing’s prominent owners either forgot or chose to forget the extraordinary skills of a lifetime horsemen, who took a speed crazy colt and turned him into a legend.

For the next four decades following Slew’s Triple Crown sweep, the only time Turner’s name was in the news was when the media contacted him to ask his opinion about a Derby and Preakness winner who was on the verge of making history. It became evident to Turner and his wife Pat, who he met at an AA meeting in 1991 and married in 1998, that Billy’s racing life had been relegated to the past. The present was fading quickly and there seemed to be no future.

All he had to cling to was the title of racing’s only living Triple Crown winning trainer, a title many fans felt should have gotten him into the Hall of Fame, but the years passed and those doors never even opened a crack.

All Turner could do over the years was train the few cheap New York-breds he was given and wait for a phone call that never came.

“The owners we did have cared about Bill, but all they had were unsound New York-breds who Bill had to back off on for months at a time,” Pat said. “It was a struggle watching him train those horses and so depressing to go to the barn every day. Bill was always known for his training of Slew, but his real genius was taking horses no one wanted and turning them into winners, but these were beyond his capabilities. We finally got down to three to five horses and couldn’t even feed ourselves. When Bill was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2015 it ripped the heart out of him.”

That was the same year Turner finally lost his title as the only living Triple Crown winning trainer, a title he held since Laz Barrera’s death in 1991. Despite falling on hard times and his career hanging by a thread, Turner was genuinely thrilled for American Pharoah, his connections, and most of all the sport and the fans, who had to wait 37 years to celebrate racing’s greatest achievement.

“I think it’s great,” Turner said the night of the Belmont Stakes. “If we didn’t get it done right about now it would have hurt racing’s fan base. You couldn’t have held the public’s attention much longer. I thought American Pharoah ran the best race of his life and improved with every race through the Triple Crown.”

That was typical of Turner, who never had any bitterness toward Slew’s owners, Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill for firing him or for the drastic decline in his career.

“I never heard him be bitter about anything or say one bad word about the Hills and Taylors,” Pat said. “If anything, he was too hard on himself. He took everything to heart.”

Turner said back in the early ‘90s he had no animosity toward the Taylors and Hills for the breakup. “There’s no bitterness at all,” he said. “We all made mistakes, but we’ve grown and learned a lot. If I was in their position I would have done the same thing. I appreciate everything they did for me and have no hard feelings whatsoever. I just feel very fortunate to have had a horse like Slew come along in my lifetime. Luckily, even with my problem I was able to appreciate everything Slew accomplished as a 4-year-old. The alcohol didn’t finish me off for another six or seven years following Slew. After practically drinking myself to death I still was able to make a solid comeback and am grateful for everything. Here I am the only living trainer to have won the Triple Crown. I figure I’ve gotten a lot more than I deserve.”

Seattle Slew’s groom John Polston recalled, “I didn’t know all the details, but I really enjoyed working for Billy. I knew Billy before I knew the Taylors and the Hills. You could walk up to him and ask him for 20 dollars and whether he knew you or not he’d give it to you. Billy is one of those happy-go-lucky guys, but he really didn’t like the publicity. When Billy left, he just wished me good luck. I could tell he was hurt. I still couldn’t believe a guy who had just won the Triple Crown would get fired. We all knew Billy liked to drink, but as far as I’m concerned he was always a good trainer.”

Hall of Fame trainer P.G. Johnson once told Pat, “If I had a trainer who was drinking and he won the Triple Crown I would buy him the bar.”

Jim Hill explained, “Billy could do the right thing with the horse, but he just couldn’t do the right thing with himself.” Sally Hill added, “People do get divorced. It certainly wasn’t what any of us wanted.”

As it turned out, the Hills and Taylors also got divorced, and their partnership was dissolved following a heated court battle, with Hill suing Taylor for misappropriation of funds. The” Slew Crew” was no more. The multi-million dollar kingdom they had built from a $17,500 yearling had come crumbling down as quickly as it shot up. As Turner said, “Slew became so big that it just consumed everybody involved.”

In the years following Slew, Turner waited for his next big opportunity, but he was not the type to go out there and try to sell himself, unlike the new breed of trainers that were coming into the sport. Turner was a humble, gentle soul who just loved horses, but apparently that wasn’t enough.

His first wife, Paula, knew he wasn’t cut out for the dog-eat-dog world of Thoroughbred racing and having to hustle to get horses.

She recalled their first date: “It was on the banks of the Brandywine River, near Unionville, Pennsylvania. Billy had his binoculars to his eyes, watching birds and I sat on a rock singing Simon and Garfunkel songs. I realized this interesting, brilliant guy loved nature and horses as much as I did. He was so shy and modest. Billy had been immersed in a hard-living culture, with its hard knocks the norm. I saw the difficulty of such a shy soul trying to make his way in a world where success often depends on how well you put yourself out there…talking to potential owners, when you’re only truly at home with the horses. It eventually took its toll.”

Paula also recalled the early days when Seattle Slew came into their life. She had grown up in an orphanage and kept having the same recurring dream. “I was a horse-crazy kid with no access to horses other than through books and westerns. I kept dreaming that I rode and trained a black stallion, and as we flew faster and faster he told me he was the fastest horse in the world.”

Paula told Billy about her dream after they were married when she realized he had been a successful steeplechase jockey from the photos on his parents’ wall. Then one day, years later, when she was training and galloping horses at Mrs. Henry Obrey’s Andor Farm in Monkton, Maryland, she was sent a big, near-black colt owned by the Hills and Taylors that eventually was going to be sent to Billy in New York. He was still kind of raw and clumsy and she nicknamed him Huey after the gawky cartoon character Baby Huey. Also, his right front leg turned out sharply from the knee down and he was a bit slow to learn; he thought everything was a game. But he soon began to learn his lessons well and it was time to send him and two other horses to Billy.

Then came his first gallop; his first look at a racetrack. That is when Paula realized this was the horse in her dreams. As he flew around the track, she thought, “This feels better than any stakes horse; this is like nothing I’ve ever known.” He had the “power of a locomotive and the grace of Nureyev,” and as she put it, “We were in another universe altogether.”

She jogged back to Billy and told him, “This is it, Willy. This is it.” He replied, “What are you talking about?” Then she said the words that would change his life, “Huey. He’s the one you’ve been waiting for.”

The following year, Seattle Slew and Billy Turner became household names and made history together. Turner was praised for his handling of Slew and getting this blazing-fast horse who ran seven furlongs in a track-record 1:20 3/5 in his 3-year-old debut to win not only the Kentucky Derby but the Belmont Stakes. After that allowance race, Turner asked, “How am I going to get this horse to go a mile and a half?” With all his steeplechase training he was able to get him to relax and the Belmont turned out to be the easiest of all his stakes victories. Baby Huey had become the first undefeated Triple Crown winner.

But the relationship between Turner and the Taylors and the Hills began to deteriorate over several disagreements, including running him in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park only three weeks after the Belmont Stakes; a race in which he suffered his first career defeat, finishing a dismal fourth. That would be his last race as a 3-year-old and the last time he would be trained by Turner.

Between their disagreements and Turner’s drinking problem, it was decided to send Seattle Slew to another trainer for his 4-year-old campaign, in which he would stamp himself as one of the all-time greats. Turner had some success after that, but his drinking problem got worse and his career began to suffer. Then he met Pat.

Despite Billy and Pat both conquering their demons, his career continued to decline. No owners would send him good horses. He finally was forced to retire several years ago and he and Pat moved to Florida when she got a job at Pavla and Erik Nygaard’s farm breaking 2-year-olds who were going through the sale.

“Billy came to the farm to be around the horses but it was tough on him,” she said. “It was painful for him to be around horses and not be involved in any way. The last few years were very difficult.”

One morning, about two years ago, Turner suffered a broken neck in a mowing accident and had a long and painful recovery. Pat said it was Bob Baffert who donated “a significant amount of money for his care.” While in ICU it was discovered he had prostate cancer that had spread to his bones.

This past December 17, at age 81, he was admitted to the hospital suffering from shortness of breath, and tests revealed the cancer had spread to his lungs. He chose not to receive further treatment and on December 27, he was sent home under hospice care. 

With medical costs spiraling out of control, the Nygaards set up a GoFundMe page for Turner and agreed to match up to $10,000 of funds raised.

On December 31, Pat crawled into bed with Billy and held him in her arms. “He died very gently a half hour later,” she said.

Pat was numb for several days before it all overwhelmed her. “Today I feel like I hit a brick wall,” she said. “I can’t believe all the outpouring of love and admiration people had for Billy.”

She thought back to that fall day in 1991 when she first met Billy at the AA meeting in Middleburg, Virginia and there was instant compatibility as they talked about many things in addition to recovery and horses.

“From that day on there wasn’t a moment I’ve had with Billy that wasn’t comforting,” she said. “Billy made everyone around him comfortable, from the owners to the backstretch workers.”

Anyone who knew Billy Turner is well aware he would not want any tears shed for him. At the end he might very well have been recalling the time he shed tears. That was when he attempted to talk about the death of his beloved Seattle Slew. They now reside together in racing’s pantheon.

Photo by Steve Haskin


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192 Responses to “A Farewell to Billy Turner”

  1. Matthew W says:

    RE possible Kentucky resentment, of Bob’s success….in the 70’s Cali entrants weren’t doing so well, in the Derby—1975 Cali horses were battling for the win, before colliding, at the 1/8 pole . .Whittingham won two, in the 80’s, and also got a 2nd…Gregson had Gato Del Sol, but it’s only been in past 20 years, that west coast horses have been winning the Roses in bunches, maybe they ARE upset about that!