William H. 'Billy' Turner Jr. Passes; Trainer Of 1977 Triple Crown Winner Seattle Slew Was 81 - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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William H. ‘Billy’ Turner Jr. Passes; Trainer Of 1977 Triple Crown Winner Seattle Slew Was 81

On the last day of 2021, Thoroughbred racing has lost a legend. William H. (Billy) Turner Jr., the trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, passed away peacefully in cancer hospice care at his home in Reddick, Fla. He was 81 years old.

Billy Turner was based at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., for much of his career, where he preferred to keep a small stable of around 30 horses so that he was able to know and train them each as the individual he believed was best for their development. He was best known for his masterful horsemanship and training of the 1977 Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew.

Unbeaten in three starts as a 2-year-old, topped off by a victory in the Grade 1 Champagne, the son of Bold Reasoning began his 3-year-old campaign with an allowance victory at Hialeah Park,  then won the G1 Flamingo at Hialeah and the G1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Sent away the 1-2 favorite in the G1 Kentucky Derby, Seattle Slew won by 1 3/4 lengths under regular rider Jean Cruguet, then  added victories in the G1 Preakness and G1 Belmont before tasting defeat for the first time in the G1 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, a race in which the horse's owners overruled Turner, who was opposed to running. He was then turned over to Douglas Peterson for the remainder of his career.

Three years after Seattle Slew's Triple Crown season, Turner trained Czaravich to several major victories, including the G1 Metropolitan Mile Handicap. His other graded stakes winners included, Gaviola, Punch Line, Kilauea, Play On, Pok Ta Pok, Popol's Gold, Night Fox, Dust Bucket, Eze, Finery and Dry Martini.

Born Feb. 29, 1940, in Rochester, N.Y., Turner grew up in Towanda, Pa., where he first began working with untrained ponies as an 11-year-old. He thought he had found his calling riding steeplechase horses while attending Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., not far from the winter training center in Camden, S.C., the man who would become his mentor: W. Burling Cocks, a Hall of Fame jump trainer based in Pennsylvania's horse country during warmer months. Turner became friends with Cocks' son, Winky Cocks, while attending school in Unionville, Pa., and the elder Cocks gave Turner a chance in a job that he would outgrow, eventually reaching six feet four inches.

“It isn't all that tough,” Turner once said of steeplechase racing. “The falling off part isn't too bad, it's hitting the ground that hurts.”

It was while working with Cocks that Turner learned to pay attention to details.

“Burley is a perfectionist,” he told William Leggett of Sports Illustrated in 1977. “No matter what you did, you seldom did it right. There was always something else that could be done to make things better, and he let you know it. There weren't easy ways out. Because of that, he helped me tremendously.”

Leggett wrote that Turner “might have been painted by Normal Rockwell. He is tall, thin and rubs his hands together so often one expects them to burst into flames.”

When he began planning for Seattle Slew's Triple Crown campaign, Turner said he talked to fellow trainers about how to bring a horse up to the Derby, a race never he'd never run in.

“The man who has helped the most is Woody Stephens, who trained Cannonade in 1974,” Turner said of the Hall of Famer who would add a second Derby win with Swale in 1984. Woody has been down the Derby road many times. I believe in what Horatio Luro called the 'Old Lemon Theory' – you don't squeeze the lemon too hard too early or there won't be any juice left when you need it.”

Turner had a brush with a Derby winner nearly a decade before Seattle Slew, training Dust Commander as a 2-year-old for Robert E. Lehmann in 1969. The colt was taken away from Turner and given to Don Combs, who saddled him to win the 1970 Kentucky Derby. Turner could not help but feel added satisfaction when Lehmann's Run Dusty Run finished second and third behind Seattle Slew in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

A resident of Marion County, Fla., since his retirement from training in 2016, Turner was diagnosed with prostate cancer almost two years ago, a disease that also spread to and weakened his bones. He was admitted to the hospital on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, after suffering significant shortness of breath, after which there was considerable fluid drained from his lungs. Unfortunately, testing of the fluid revealed that his cancer had spread to his lungs. Turner had chosen not to receive further treatment for the cancer. and he was transferred to hospice care on Tuesday, Dec. 28.

After the cancer was discovered in his lungs, his condition deteriorated quickly but it was thought he still had some months to live. On Thursday, the hospice nurse felt this prognosis changed to days. Friday morning, the prognosis changed to mere hours. His wife, Pat, was next to him when he took his last breath in peace.

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Just a few days ago, a GoFundMe effort was launched to assist Billy with medical and other expenses, and to give the chance to those who knew him to express words of support and their memories of this consummate gentleman and horseman. The outpouring of love and financial support was immense, and Pat Turner spent a big part of his last two days reading Billy the many pages of messages sent from around the nation.

After his passing, Pat issued a statement to thank everyone who sent messages and financial support: “Billy Turner passed away this afternoon peacefully at home. I want to take a moment to thank every person who contributed to his physical care and lifting him up in your thoughts and prayers. I was able to read him all the messages sharing your kindness and admiration of him. It meant a great deal to me to be able to let him know how loved he was in his last moments.”

The world of horse racing, as well as other equestrian disciplines with Seattle Slew in their bloodlines, owes much to Billy Turner's masterful guidance of Seattle Slew and his legacy. It meant much to Billy to receive the financial support of his and Seattle's Slew's fans. The numerous prayers and words of support meant that Billy, in his last days, got to experience a blanket of love and reminders of how much he meant to the world of racing, how much inspiration Seattle Slew provided to fans and those who started their careers because of this incredible colt and his trainer, and how many appreciated Billy's horsemanship, humor and class.

A memorial and celebration of life service will be held at a later date.

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