06/03/2004 12:00AM

Turner ready for company in elite club


ELMONT, N.Y. - Owner Roy Chapman expressed just one goal to trainer John Servis when it came to Smarty Jones: Win the Kentucky Derby. For Billy Turner, the trainer of Seattle Slew 27 years ago, the expectations were never so modest.

"The talk was always the Triple Crown," Turner, 64, said recently outside his Belmont Park barn. "It was never just try to win the Derby with him. It was how are you going to win the Triple Crown? And, of course, in the back of my mind it was, 'How do you win the Belmont?' Slew was so explosive and had so much speed you had to figure out how to get that under control."

Turner figured it out. In 1977, Seattle Slew won the Belmont Stakes by four lengths to become the first and only horse to complete the Triple Crown undefeated. Saturday, Turner will be rooting for Servis and Smarty Jones to join that club when he takes on eight challengers in the 136th Belmont Stakes.

"Oh yeah, I am," Turner said. "It's time."

While Smarty Jones-mania began to take hold following his victory in the Kentucky Derby, Turner remembers being the subject of media scrutiny in the fall of Seattle Slew's 2-year-old year.

"The biggest difference between my situation and today is the fact there were so many more reporters because every newspaper covered racing," Turner said. "There was just so much written - newspapers, magazines. Sports Illustrated had Bill Leggett and Bill Nack both covering horse racing. . . . There was somebody around every single day."

In the fall of 1976, Seattle Slew won his first two starts easily and was being pointed to the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes. Turner came to his barn one day to find a host of New York Racing Association employees at the ready with hammers, nails, and paint.

"Somebody told NYRA the best 2-year-old in the country was in Barn 60, and panic set in because the barn was the last one in a line that hadn't been repaired in 30 years; it was falling down," Turner said. "They sent around painters, carpenters, landscapers, garbage men. I said wait a minute, boys, you could work on this barn any time you want, but do it after next week because I had a horse in the barn that was just exploding. Let's just keep everything quiet until after the Champagne."

After Seattle Slew won the Champagne by 9 3/4 lengths and ran a mile in 1:34.20, quiet was not an option.

Seattle Slew wintered at Hialeah and was stabled in the same barn as horses trained by Scotty Schulhofer. Coincidentally, Servis worked for Schulhofer at the time. Servis recalled his amazement at how long Turner kept Seattle Slew on the track in the morning.

Seattle Slew's morning routine would consist of jogging in Hialeah's three-furlong chute for as long as 20 minutes before Turner would allow exercise rider Mike Kennedy to gallop him. Turner would play tricks on Slew in hopes of getting him to relax.

"He'd start out galloping through the stretch, and then just about the time they turned down the backside we'd pull him up," Turner said. "Then, when he got in the habit of pulling up turning up the backside, we'd gallop him down to the far turn."

Seattle Slew's speed did not seem to be harnessed when he set a track record winning a seven-furlong allowance race on March 9, his 3-year-old debut. Seventeen days later, Seattle Slew romped to victory in the Flamingo.

Tuner said Seattle Slew came out of his Hialeah races "jarred up a little bit from that super-fast racetrack." He said he went easy with Seattle Slew leading up to the Wood Memorial and thought his horse might be vulnerable that day. Seattle Slew won by 3 1/4 lengths.

"I felt if they were ever going to beat him, that was the day, because the track wasn't going to be fast," Turner said. "It was going to be a laboring track, and your horse had to be dead fit to win it. He was in hand at the finish. That was the one that set him right up for the Derby."

In the Kentucky Derby, Seattle Slew broke poorly. But he recovered quickly and bulled his way between horses to engage For the Moment. Slew stalked For the Moment until the top of the stretch, before drawing away.

"He had to overcome a blistering first quarter of a mile and still hang on and win," Turner said. "That's the kind of thing that beats most horses in the Derby, when you get a situation like that and you get a rough trip."

Turner said he feared Cormorant in the Preakness. Slew and Cormorant battled through six furlongs in 1:09.80 before Slew pulled away to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Iron Constitution.

Leading up to the Belmont, Turner changed his training regimen. He worked Seattle Slew a mile on both Saturdays leading up to the race.

"I hadn't worked him like that in any other race or had come close to it, and he did it exactly the way you wanted to do it - he was very happy about it," Turner said. "I was confident that he was where he needed to be."

While Seattle Slew was a late arrival to the paddock for the Belmont, he was a tour de force on the racetrack, leading at every call over a muddy track.

Turner said he thought a speed horse would win this year's Kentucky Derby but thought it would be Lion Heart. He was impressed with the way Smarty Jones stalked Lion Heart and went past him with ease.

"They can seem to do a little bit more what they want with him, and he doesn't want to show the kind of early speed that Slew did," Turner said. "He appears to be very tough, and there doesn't appear to be any quit in him. And the horses that go for the Triple Crown, there can't be any quit in them."

There is no quit in Turner, either. He still maintains an 18-horse string with hopes of finding another star.

"I'm a horseman," Turner said. "I'm not a showman. I'm not a great businessman, either. I like working with the horses, and I like the game."