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A last-person Triple Crown account

Trainer Billy Turner tells tales of Seattle Slew's Triple Crown run in 1977

Sometimes, you can't even get it from the horse's mouth.

You'd like to, because this week is the run-up to Saturday's most recent Triple Crown attempt, the 14th since Affirmed last won in 1978. All 11 Triple Crown winners have died, the most recent being Seattle Slew on Kentucky Derby day 2002, the 25th anniversary of his successful run for the roses.

The next best thing is OK, because, other than Mr. Ed and Zenyatta, horses don't express themselves well to humans.

That next best thing is pretty limited too. Only one trainer who guided a thoroughbred to all three winners' circles in the sport's most prestigious and challenging series is still alive.

That would be Billy Turner, 75, the man who fed the oats, scheduled the works and planned the strategy so Seattle could Slew all Triple Crown comers in 1977 and become the sport's 10th mystical legend.

They held the draw for Saturday's Belmont Stakes at Rockefeller Center on Wednesday. There, names and numbers were drawn out of hats, trainers of Belmont entries uttered mostly unquotable nothings and Bob Baffert beautifully navigated the media siege.

There was also an appearance by Turner, who still trains at Belmont Park and who, when there is a Triple Crown at stake, allows the racing PR people to strut him out again.

"They bring me because of all the damn lies floating around," Turner says, grinning.

In the crush to get at Baffert, few in the media gave Turner much thought and the damn lies went unchallenged.

Baffert doesn't know what will happen with his overwhelming favorite, American Pharoah. But he knows that the nightly news, the never-ending blogs and the daily sports pages have an insatiable appetite for this Triple Crown stuff. So he carries on with the patience of Job and enough fresh wit to keep them happy.

"All I know," Baffert says, "is that this is like Pat Riley always said: 'There is only winning and misery.' "

Baffert has had three previous shots at a Triple Crown, and two close calls. In 1997, his Silver Charm led with the finish line at hand when a superb ride by Chris McCarron, fully aware that Silver Charm was not passed easily, took Touch Gold wide and out of Silver Charm's view to catch and pass Baffert's horse.

A year later, Baffert's Real Quiet had his nose in front of Victory Gallop a few jumps before the finish line and a jump after it, but those were the wrong jumps.

In 2002, Baffert's War Emblem, ridden by the same jockey who will take American Pharoah into the gate Saturday, Victor Espinoza, stumbled out of the gate and never had a chance.

With the Triple Crown, Baffert has been there and almost done that. With Billy Turner, there is no almost.

He was 36 when he was presented with a huge, muscular 2-year-old with a stubborn way, and yet, a generally agreeable personality. Turner wore a tam often described as a newsboy peak cap. He still does.

He got the training duties from owners Jim and Sally Hill and Mickey and Karen Taylor. Jim Hill, who had been Turner's veterinarian, had identified the horse as well-bred and shared the purchase with the Taylors, who came from a wealthy logging family in Seattle.

Turner says it didn't take long to realize how special Seattle Slew was.

"He'd run track-record times when he was just training," Turner says. "His works were faster than any of the other horses ran in a race."

Turner also says it became clear early that his challenge would not be to get Seattle Slew ready for the Kentucky Derby or Preakness.

"I pretty much knew he was better than anything they could throw at me for those," he says. "The challenge was going to be the Belmont, the mile and a half, and I started training him for that, long before Triple Crown season even began."

The training wasn't so much for distance or fitness, but for harnessing of Slew's strength and energy.

"We had a three-eighths-mile chute at Hialeah" in Miami, Turner says, "and we'd jog him 10 minutes one way, then 10 the other way."

That was just to get the spunk out of Seattle Slew.

For the 1977 Belmont, Turner trained Seattle Slew for control, not speed or fitness. He wanted to hold him to 1 minute 12 seconds for three-quarters of a mile. That was slow (Secretariat did 1:09 4/5) and allowed sufficient energy for the long slog home from there.

"It rained the night before," Turner says, "and that slowed them down so much that the three-quarter-mile time was 1:14.

"When I saw that, I knew we were home free."

Seattle Slew, with a four-length victory, became the first, and only horse to date, to win the Triple Crown with an undefeated record. He eventually ran 17 races, won 14 and finished second twice. His only out-of-the-money result was the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park three weeks after the Belmont.

Slew finished fourth. Turner had opposed running again that soon and eventually lost the horse to another trainer, he says, over that controversy and an article in the New York Times that painted him as a good guy and the owning Taylors less so.

Seattle Slew had been purchased for $17,500.

"What he did," Turner says, "was show the world that, for a few thousand bucks, you could go out and get yourself the best horse in the world."

Seattle Slew was, in the most positive horse racing connotation, a freak. Many think American Pharoah is the same.

Were that to be, racing's current Triple Crown legacy would be favorably revised: Two living Triple Crown trainers and one more welcomed addition to the sport's legendary pedestal.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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