05/09/2006 11:00PM

The man behind Slew chimes in

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Seattle Slew (left), alongside trainer Bill Turner, had three prep races before he won the '77 Derby.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - All this talk about a Barbaro Triple Crown is nothing more than wishful thinking, idle speculation, and, at worst, a cruel tease, preying on the open wounds of racing fans still bitter from recent betrayals. Might as well toss in world peace and a cure for the common cold and then mail the list off to Santa, for all the good it will do.

Ah, but this is different, the optimists insist. This horse is special. This horse has successfully answered more questions in a six-race career than most Thoroughbreds are asked in a lifetime. Turf or dirt, rain or shine, performing before a handful of fans on a quiet Delaware afternoon or nearly 160,000 screamers at Churchill Downs - Barbaro keeps doing one thing extremely well. He wins. And it would be no shock if he goes on to win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

There have been brilliant Derby winners in the past who have stumbled in the Preakness. Monarchos in 2001, rolling home by nearly five lengths in the Derby, failed to duplicate that form in Baltimore. So did Fusaichi Pegasus the year before, despite winning the Derby with deceptive ease. Thunder Gulch, though overlooked in the betting, was a decisive Derby winner in 1995 who did not rise to the Preakness challenge. Nor did Sea Hero, the 2 1/2-length Derby winner of 1993. The fraternity also includes such colts as Ferdinand, Swale, Sunny's Halo and Riva Ridge - all of them daylight Derby winners who proved mortal at Pimlico.

Any number of excuses were put forth. Fresh opponents, off tracks, injuries, even skin disease - the Thoroughbred is a never-ending puzzle. The Derby winners who survived the Preakness then had to face a whole new set of circumstances at Belmont Park, compounded by the pressure of actually winning the Triple Crown.

Barbaro already has eliminated most of the variables that kept recent Derby winners from sweeping through the Triple Crown. Issues of running style, track surface, and pedigree are moot. Both his jockey and trainer can pass a stress test with relative ease. And if there is a spoiler lying in the tall grass - a Red Bullet, a Conquistador Cielo, a Temperence Hill - they have yet to break cover.

Still, there must be a reason that only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown, none of them since 1978. And since there is only one man alive who really knows how it's done, this might be a good time to have a word with Billy Turner.

In his preparation of the unbeaten Seattle Slew for the 1977 Triple Crown, Turner took the long view, just as Michael Matz has done with Barbaro. Both trainers approached the Derby as step one in a three-step process, not as an end in itself. As a result, they ran the risk of coming up short in terms of conditioning or seasoning in the Derby, but neither one of them wavered.

But while Matz spaced Barbaro's three Triple Crown prep races over a span of four months, beginning Jan. 1, Turner held fire and did not produce Seattle Slew until a simple March 9 allowance race for his 3-year-old debut, in what amounted to a public workout. Turner followed that with the March 26 Flamingo Stakes and the April 23 Wood Memorial.

"It takes a high degree of confidence in your horse," Turner, 66, said from home on Long Island. "But Slew was an entirely different type of horse than Barbaro. Coming up to the Derby it wasn't a question of leaving enough in the tank. It was a question of keeping the tank from exploding. As Jerry Bailey said on one of the pre-Derby shows, Seattle Slew was the only horse he ever saw who could go a mile and a quarter pulling the jock out of the saddle. Every other horse has to be settled at some point."

Barbaro, obviously, settled like a dream for Edgar Prado and won by 6 1/2 lengths. Seattle Slew, under Jean Cruguet, won the Derby by "only" 1 3/4 lengths and the Preakness by 1 1/2 lengths.

"The thing is, in those first two races, as soon as Cruguet got control of the race he shut him down," Turner said. "And that's because the whole idea was to show up for the Belmont."

Did Barbaro, then, use too much in winning the Derby?

"No, the jock wasn't tearing him up, so the horse was running on his own," Turner said. "He's all horse, no question. But he seems happy to do what you ask him to do and do it when you want. His Derby was a great performance."

In between the Derby and Preakness, Turner recalled working Seattle Slew a single five-eighths of a mile.

"On the other hand, coming up to the Belmont, I gave him two one-mile works," Turner said. "You had to have the edge off him to go the mile and a half. That was the only time I ever worked him over five-eighths of a mile."

The result was an exuberant four-length Belmont win, with Cruguet standing in the irons saluting the crowd nearly 50 yards before the finish. Turner is already looking past the Preakness to a similarly dramatic end to Barbaro's Triple Crown.

"This horse is already stirring up interest big time," Turner said. "It's exciting. I think it's going to be one of those years."