06/04/2002 11:00PM

Turner set stage, put on show


ELMONT, N.Y. - Billy Turner had the walk timed to perfection. It would take eight minutes, going at Seattle Slew's steady pace, to make it from his barn in the far corner of the Belmont Park stables to the entrance of the amphitheater paddock.

Turner knew it because he had clocked it several times leading up to the 1977 Belmont Stakes. There was no detail he was leaving to chance. He remembered it this week because no one is letting him forget, especially since the death of Seattle Slew on May 7, the 25th anniversary of his Kentucky Derby win.

But Turner doesn't mind. After all, he is the only trainer alive who can talk about the Triple Crown with the authority of someone who has won it.

There have been only 10. H.G. "Hard Guy" Bedwell was first with Sir Barton in 1919. James Fitzsimmons, better known as Sunny Jim, did it with Gallant Fox in 1930, and his son Omaha in 1935.

George Conway handled War Admiral in 1937, Don Cameron tamed Count Fleet in 1943, and Max Hirsch took Assault to the top of the mountain in 1946. Ben Jones won with Whirlaway in 1941, then shared the honor with his son Jimmy, when Citation took the Crown in 1948.

In more recent times, there were Lucien Laurin and Lazaro Barrera, the little French Canadian and the expansive Cuban. Both are gone now, but their memories are safe forever because of what Secretariat did in 1973 and what Affirmed accomplished in 1978.

Turner and Seattle Slew, sandwiched in between, made the Belmont Stakes their shining hour. Skeptics were perched on every branch of every tree at Belmont Park, waiting for Turner to melt or Slew to slip. It didn't happen.

Back then, Turner was stabled in Barn 54, not too far from the Plainfield Gate. You couldn't miss it, since it was the only barn on the Belmont backside with a black camper parked out front, decorated with bright yellow racing stripes and "Slewmobile" lettered on the side. Mickey Taylor, who owned Seattle Slew with his wife, Karen, and Jim and Sally Hill, used the camper as his traveling office.

Today the Turner horses live in Barn 44, at the junction of Ruffian Road and Seattle Slew Avenue. From the front of the barn, Turner can gaze down Ruffian Road to the 14-stall barn that housed Seattle Slew. The memories come easily.

"Slew was just at the peak of condition," said Turner, who celebrated his 62nd birthday in February. "In fact, he was so damn sharp that I gave him a mile work each Saturday between the Preakness and the Belmont. All I wanted to do was get him so he would go a long way without getting in too big a hurry."

Although War Emblem has yet to be mistaken for Seattle Slew, Bob Baffert has voiced similar concerns in his approach to the Belmont. To carry his speed 12 furlongs and win the Triple Crown, War Emblem needs to relax, which usually is easier said than done.

"We spent an hour on Slew's back every single day," Turner said. "He needed that hour just to get the energy out of him. The way I figured him, you had to keep him wanting to do more, without ever finding out just how much he could take."

Turner tweaked the formula to perfection, right up to the moment they called for the horses to come to the paddock for the 1977 Belmont Stakes. The trainer stayed cool at his barn, sitting on a pat hand, waiting for the right moment to show his cards.

"They always like to get you to the paddock about 15 minutes before the Belmont, which was a little more than we needed to do with Slew," Turner said. "He was always looking for a reason to explode."

Finally, Seattle Slew emerged from his shed row and led a huge entourage of press, security, outriders, and well-wishers through the Belmont stables on that eight-minute walk, arriving just in time to tack up and take his spot in the procession. By then, at least one rival owner was stirring up a stink, accusing Turner of delay tactics. Chances that Seattle Slew would be scratched, however, were very thin.

"Just as we hit the paddock," Turner recalled, "a producer for the TV show came up to me and said, 'Perfect. Just perfect! You wait for them to set the stage, then you put on the show.' "

The rest is etched in history. Seattle Slew carried Jean Cruguet in front all the way to win by four. Seattle Slew was hailed far and wide as the first member of the exclusive Triple Crown club to reach the goal while still unbeaten. As for Turner, he celebrated at Esposito's that night and was questioned the next day by the Belmont stewards for being late to the paddock.

"I told them they had no choice," Turner said. "They had to fine me."

The stewards jumped at the chance. Face would be saved. Turner was asked to suggest an amount.

"I said that $250 seemed about right, because we couldn't have everybody doing this kind of thing."

For Turner, it was a small price to pay for the victory of a lifetime.