04/14/2011 2:58PM

There's still only one Seattle Slew


It was about this time 35 years ago that Billy Turner knew for certain he was sitting on a time bomb when Seattle Slew, in Turner’s care since the previous fall, was given his first breeze at Belmont Park in late March of 1976.

“He’d already had plenty of miles on the farm, so he was well legged up,” Turner recalled this week. “But with that breeze, he showed so much so fast that I knew I’d be pushing my luck trying to do too much with him too soon.”

So that was it. Turner set aside any idea of an early 2-year-old campaign for Seattle Slew and did not run him until Sept. 20, 1976. In a span of 28 days, the colt won a maiden race, an allowance race, and the Champagne Stakes with such breathtaking ease that he was acclaimed champion of his division. No horse in memory had impressed so many so much after so little.

Until, perhaps, Uncle Mo, who in some eyes had the second coming of Seattle Slew written all over him until he finished third in the Wood Memorial last weekend. The colt was pronounced sound of limb coming out of the race, and even the results of blood tests were announced with fanfare fit for the table settings of a royal wedding (for the record, there was evidence, according to trainer Todd Pletcher, of a gastrointestinal infection).

Such setbacks, of course, are the norm, which is one reason why Seattle Slew’s unbeaten march from his 2-year-old campaign right on through the 1977 Triple Crown remains one of the touchstone achievements of Thoroughbred racing. Turner’s place in the game’s history is assured as the man who orchestrated the feat, although with the passage of time it is becoming more and more difficult to recall exactly how he did it. Turner laughed.

“I felt I had the best horse in the world and I thought I could do anything with him,” Turner said.

So he did.

“As a 2-year-old, he was already a big, strong colt who could take lots of work,” Turner said. “When we brought him back at three, he was bigger and stronger. The rider I had on him said the horse was all he could handle. I wasn’t sure how we’d even be able to gallop him.”

Turner and his 12-horse stable were at Hialeah Park at the time. There were some nice ones in the bunch, but as reigning 2-year-old champ, Seattle Slew kind of stood out.

“Every morning, we’d take him to the three-eighths chute where they used to run their baby races and jog him up and down that cute for 15 or 20 minutes,” Turner said. “Then at one point, we’d gallop him half a mile and pull up. We’d slowly increase the distance until we could gallop him a mile, and then one day we let him slip away at the end and let him go a half in 47 and two. The only thing was, he’d gallop out three-quarters in twelve.”

There followed victories in an allowance race, the Flamingo Stakes, and the Wood Memorial, with Turner still letting Slew be Slew in the morning, working hard but not fast – if that makes sense.

“A good horse needs a lot of training,” Turner insisted. “Not only can they take it, they want it, and you’re not doing them any favors if you don’t give them the chance to develop their ability. It’s a trainer’s job to figure that out, though, because if a horse isn’t meant to be that good, that’s how they get hurt.

“Horses of that caliber need more training, but they don’t need breezes,” Turner said. “You engage more muscles jogging than you do galloping, and you do it without blowing their minds or risking their soundness.”

Even with his perfect record, achieved in six seemingly effortless appearances, there were Seattle Slew doubters abroad in the land that spring of ’77.

“By the time we got to the Derby, the old-timers were saying there was no way he could win being trained like he was, with so few works,” Turner said. “Fact was, he was training three times harder than any of their horses.”

Turner watched Uncle Mo’s Wood defeat with both interest and compassion.

“I feel for them,” he said. “I know where they’re coming from. I think if they’d have let him open up somewhere along the way, he could have still outrun them in the last eighth even getting tired, because to my eye he was just a short horse. If that’s the case, he needed the race, and I think he’ll be ready for the Kentucky Derby.”

Looking ahead for Premier Pegasus

It was late in the day last Saturday, with the Santa Anita Derby in the books and Midnight Interlude crowned the winner, when the scratched morning-line favorite stood at the front of his stall and tossed his head a few times, nudged a visitor in the chest, and tried to pull that lip trick, the one that leads a playful young colt to believe he’s been invited to eat your hand.

Premier Pegasus, impressive winner of the San Felipe Stakes, was wearing an Ace bandage on the lower part of his left leg and a soft shine to his coat that belied the fact he’d been through anesthesia and surgery to insert a single screw in a small fracture barely 24 hours earlier, just up the road at the Santa Anita backstretch clinic. Assistant trainer Maria Ayala, who did her best to ignore the Santa Anita Derby, beamed in hopeful anticipation.

“In 20 days, we start to hand walk him five minutes a day,” she said. “In two months, he gets the screw out, then in two more months, he can go back to the track.”

Go ahead, tell me this game’s not all about tomorrow.