ELMONT, N.Y. — The woman in Billy Turner's office on Belmont Park's backside asks him to autograph a book about the Kentucky Derby. She opens the book to the cover page, showing him signatures from many of horse racing's greatest trainers, from the dearly departed such as Woody Stephens and Lucien Laurin to Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert.
"I'm not sure I belong," Turner says with a smile, signing anyway.
Maybe he's right, if he's talking about training graded stakes winners. But he has done something that no other living trainer has.
Until at least this afternoon, when Baffert sends War Emblem out in the Belmont Stakes to see whether he can duplicate his wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Turner is the only living trainer to have saddled a Triple Crown winner.
He did it in 1977 with Seattle Slew. The only trainer to do it since was Laz Barrera, the next year with Affirmed. Barrera died in 1991.
The '77 Belmont was about the first horse race I ever covered. By the end of that week, I could literally say that everything I knew about horses, I'd learned from Billy Turner.
He was 37 and had never had a super horse before. With Seattle Slew entering the Triple Crown races undefeated, New York Racing Assn. officials warned him about what to expect. Not on the track. He might have been new to the national scene, but he had his barn at Belmont and they knew he knew racing. They were concerned about him off the track, where he did not know much about media.
Turner, like his horse, took it all in stride. Four years after Secretariat had revived interest in the Triple Crown, there were dozens of us outside his barn every morning and afternoon of Belmont week.
When evening fell, Turner would invite writers still around to join him at the tavern across the road, Esposito's. Considering how early we all needed to be at the track the next morning, we would stay far too late, Turner telling stories while we listened and ordered rounds.
The pattern wasn't all that much different for Turner than at any other time of the year, but he appreciated the new ears.
We are walking down memory lane while sitting in his small office inside a barn he shares near the intersection of Seattle Slew Avenue and Ruffian Road. He is as lanky as ever, but, at 62, his wavy hair is graying under the ever-present English driving cap popular on the steeplechase circuit he rode before becoming a trainer.
In Kentucky, the venerable trainers shook their heads at how someone so inexperienced could be trusted with such a marvelous animal and second-guessed Turner's every move.
From that, he learned that the horse could win the race but only the trainer or the jockey could lose it. That lesson would be hammered home later in the year, but, on the first Saturday in May, they won by a length and three-quarters.
He feared only one other 3-year-old that year, the speedy Cormorant, but he faded in the stretch in the Preakness and finished fourth.
With home-track advantage in the Belmont, Turner, by now a confident veteran, defied the stewards who mandated that the horses should be in the paddock 15 minutes before the race and got his there moments before the procession to the track. He was pretty sure they wouldn't scratch Seattle Slew.
He suggested they fine him instead, which they did--$250.
"We can't have everybody do this kind of thing," he told them.
Seattle Slew won by four lengths and Turner figures he would have broken Secretariat's record for the 1 1/2-mile race if the track had been fast, as it had been in 1973 for Secretariat's historic 31-length victory, instead of muddy.
"He was a faster horse than Secretariat," Turner says. "Secretariat would lock into a perfect rhythm and just keep going. But he wouldn't have had a chance against Slew because he couldn't accelerate like that."
Seattle Slew was also a feisty competitor who didn't like it when he was behind, much like War Emblem.
"Angel Cordero was ahead of him on For The Moment at the three-quarter pole in the Derby and looked over and saw Slew looking at him, not at the horse but at him," Turner says. "Angel told me it was the most intimidating look he'd ever gotten, from a horse or a human. Slew knew he could handle the horse, but it was like he was sizing up the man. Slew was made up of a different kind of stuff."
The next year, in a victory over Affirmed, Cordero rode Seattle Slew and said it was like flying an airplane.
By then, Turner was out of the picture, having been fired by the owners after Seattle Slew had finished fourth in the Swaps at Hollywood Park in his first race after the Belmont.
Seattle Slew died on May 7, 25 years to the day after he won the Kentucky Derby.
Turner used to visit Seattle Slew periodically at Three Chimneys, the Kentucky farm where he stood at stud.