'The best horseman that ever walked:' Billy Turner's amazing rise and sad death

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·12 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Billy Turner
    American horse trainer

The house trailer sits near a horse farm in Reddick, Florida, and inside Billy Turner waited to die.

Next to his hospital bed were two chairs, for his wife, hospice workers and people coming to say their last goodbyes to the man who trained one of the greatest horses in racing history.

Turner called the shots when Seattle Slew won the 1977 Triple Crown, and he remains one of only 11 trainers to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year.

But reaching the sport’s pinnacle did not save the 81-year-old Turner from what transpired during the final weeks of his life.

He and his wife were forced out of their townhouse when the owners terminated the lease despite being told Turner was suffering from advanced prostate cancer. The couple put their belongings into storage before moving into the trailer, which contained little more than the hospital bed, an air mattress, a coffee table and the two chairs.

Turner died Dec. 31.

Former horse trainer Billy Turner, shown in 2004, died in Reddick, Florida on Dec. 31 at the age of 81.
Former horse trainer Billy Turner, shown in 2004, died in Reddick, Florida on Dec. 31 at the age of 81.

“It’s a shame because I thought he was the best horseman that ever walked," said Mike Kennedy, who was the exercise rider for Seattle Slew. “He had such a way with horses.

“Let me tell you, he was a better trainer drunk than most trainers are sober."

It’s impossible to appreciate Turner’s struggles and successes – and how his life ended – without knowing about his alcoholism. Kennedy said he remembers when Turner’s wife persuaded the trainer to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Recalled Kennedy, “The next morning, when Billy came into work, he said, ‘Mike, geez, I went to a meeting last night. These people are telling such sad stories. I got so depressed I had to go to the car and have a drink.’

“That’s Billy.’’

'Get a talented horse'

That was Billy Turner before rehab. And before relapse. And before he entered the homestretch of his life.

Tall and thin, the blue-eyed Turner was married three times, had two children and was known for his “Turnerisms.”

Like when he told the New York Times of a 3-year-old horse, “It's not that he's stupid. He just doesn't know anything.” Or the time he was asked how to get a talented horse through his career and Turner replied, “Well, first you got to get a talented horse.”

Upon his death, Turner was remembered as a storyteller, a bird watcher, a traveler, a former steeplechase jockey and a likeable trainer who showed as much regard for grooms and the hotwalkers on the backside of the racetrack as he did for the multimillion-dollar horse owners in the VIP suites. A man with gifts and demons.

“He just had this unbelievable instinct for what a horse needed,’’ said Jim Hill, a retired horse veterinarian and a co-owner of Seattle Slew during the 1977 Triple Crown who also noted of Turner, “He could consume a bottle of vodka in a day and you wouldn’t know it."

But the drinking was no secret to those closest to Turner.

His addiction to alcohol impacted all three of his marriages, according to each of the women. Turner was drinking heavily at the same time he was burnishing his reputation as one of the top trainers in racing.

Take the 1977 Kentucky Derby.

A few days before the race, a downpour left the track muddy before morning workouts. The clockers and reporters waited to watch Seattle Slew get “blown out’’ – galloped three-eights of a mile in standard preparation for a race.

Instead, Kennedy said, Turner walked Seattle Slew around the track and the paddock, so as not to put him at risk of injury, prompting one onlooker to crack, “What are they going to do, walk that (horse) to the Derby?’’

Turner was famous for deviating from his plan – provided there was a plan – and drew criticism for not working his horses harder.

But on race day at the 1977 Kentucky Derby, Seattle Slew, the dark bay with a slightly crooked left leg, won by 1¾ lengths. Turner, then 37, said he watched the race from a bar at Churchill Downs.

Two weeks later, after Seattle Slew won the Preakness Stakes by 1½ lengths, it was off to Belmont Park, where Turner usually could be found at the horse barn or Esposito’s, a popular tavern across from the back stable gate at the racetrack.

“They’d be drinking beer, and when Billy’d come in, they’d all be drinking whiskey," said Kennedy, the exercise rider who was close friends with Turner. “He’d be decorating the mahogany there with money. He’d just throw that money up on the bar. Money didn’t interest Billy at all."

Turner’s first wife, Paula, said, “Anybody could come to him with any harebrained scheme and he’d give them money. I’d be like, ‘Billy,’ and he’d be like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ”

See ya Seattle Slew

There seemed to be no more reason to worry about finances after Seattle Slew won the Belmont Stakes by four lengths on June 11, 1977 and became the first undefeated horse to sweep the Triple Crown.

Kennedy said Mickey Taylor, one of Seattle Slew’s owners, told him Kennedy and Turner would get lifetime breeding rights when the horse retired and went to stud. Those breeding rights turned out to be worth millions of dollars, as Seattle Slew proved to be a lucrative stallion.

But three weeks after the Belmont Stakes, and with a $300,000 purse up for grabs at the Swap Stakes at Hollywood Park in Southern California, Seattle Slew raced again – and clearly too soon, as the horse suffered his first defeat, by a whopping 16 lengths.

Before Seattle Slew raced again, Turner was fired.

At the time, some the trainer’s supporters say, the split resulted from Turner openly criticizing Seattle Slew’s owners for rushing the horse back on the track after the Triple Crown campaign.

“That finished him, it destroyed him,” Turner later told the New York Times. “It was only a couple of weeks after the Belmont, and I even had a blacksmith in to take off his racing plates, the aluminum shoes they run in. We had this thing set up as a masterpiece, and they ruined it."

Billy Turner, right, greets Seattle Slew and jockey Jean Curguet at the winner's circle after taking the Belmont Stakes to secure the Triple Crown in 1977.
Billy Turner, right, greets Seattle Slew and jockey Jean Curguet at the winner's circle after taking the Belmont Stakes to secure the Triple Crown in 1977.

But Karen Taylor, who along with her husband were the horse’s primary owners, called that "fake news." She said she thinks Turner refusing to get help for his drinking problem is what prompted the owners to fire Turner.

"I appreciated him as a horseman, and he was a good horseman,'' Taylor said. "He was a major part of the Slew team."

The Taylors then denied their ex-trainer breeding rights. Turner sued, seeking 10% of the Seattle Slew's $12 million syndication price and an annual breeding “season,” which entitled the holder to breed one mare to the stallion, according to a New York Times report. The matter was settled out of court.

Turner accepted three breeding seasons, according to his second wife, Barbara D'Andrea. One of the rights was used to pay Turner’s attorney and the other two rights were sold for $100,000 apiece, according to D'Andrea.

“Yeah, he got screwed," she said.

Patti Turner, the trainer’s third wife, said the lucrative breeding rights Billy Turner said he’d been promised before he was fired would have made their lives easier as Turner succumbed to prostate cancer.

“It would have enabled us to be independent and to have a place of our own that nobody could throw us out of,’’ she said.

But Patti Turner said the damage was more than financial.

“I think the whole thing of having Slew taken away from him was a soul-crushing experience, I really do,’’ she said. “It’s effect on Bill was really profound.’’

Billy Turner’s drinking escalated – and his on-track success continued.

There was Czaravich, a Kentucky-bred horse trained by Turner that in 1979 and 1980 won four Graded stakes races and finished third in five other Graded stakes races.

Then there was 1984 Preakness Stakes, when Turner saddled Play On and watched the horse finished second, just 1½ lengths behind winner Gate Dancer. Sports Illustrated wrote Play On had been “trained up to the race brilliantly by Billy Turner.’’

There were more accolades as horses trained by Turner won Graded stakes races in 1981, 1983 and 1984. But the year his family members know best is 1991.

“Some of his friends kidnapped him and got him into a rehab center that agreed to take him against his will," said Barbara D'Andrea, Turner's second wife. “And when he got there, he was in such bad shape that they had to put him in the hospital for a week.

“When Billy went into the rehab, I had to sell 17 horses in two weeks and close the barn. Fire all the help and pay all the bills. He was almost dead when he left."

Years later, Turner told the Washington Post, “When I got to the hospital, I was on death row."

He spent six weeks in a rehabilitation center in Havre De Grace, Maryland, and emerged a changed man, according to those closest to Turner.

“In sobriety, he was tremendous,’’ said Nelle Turner Durizch, Turner’s daughter from his first marriage. “It was incredible."

At an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1991, Turner met his third wife, Patti. She was an accomplished horsewoman and helped him piece back together his shattered career. It included a stint with an owner best known as “Mattress Mack,’’ Jim McIngvale, the owner of Gallery Furniture in Houston who’s known for $1 million-plus bets on sporting events.

Turner trained a few of McIngvale’s horses between 2011 and 2013.

“We just kept looking for (the next) Seattle Slew and didn’t find him," McIngvale said.

But Billy Turner found nothing that would get him back to the Triple Crown races, much less finding a horse that resembled Seattle Slew.

Turner’s second wife said she thinks that’s partly the the result of Turner having openly criticized Seattle Slew’s owners and other “blueblood’’ owners.

“The bluebloods control racing, and he went up against the bluebloods, and they made sure he never succeeded afterwards,’’ she said. “That’s why he isn’t in the Hall of Fame."

Whether Turner offended the bluebloods, he rarely mingled with them, said Turner’s son, Liam.

“He was all about the job and the horses but not the sales and the schmoozing part,’’ Liam Turner said. “He didn’t want to do the dinners. He wanted to go drinking in the local bar by himself. He didn’t want to drink with all the rich people in a fancy banquet hall.

“He did have plenty of opportunities to do that. That just wasn’t his thing."

Said Kennedy, the former exercise rider for Seattle Slew, “It’s too bad somebody didn’t give him a decent horse to train during that period. It probably would have put his career back on track again”

'Left with no horses'

Without a great horse, there was only so much Turner could prove. The number of talented horses in Turner's stable dwindled.

In 2014, he filed for bankruptcy. And before Turner retired from horse racing in 2016, he resumed drinking alcohol, according to Kennedy.

“He went back on the drink when he was in New York, and the people took their horses away from him,’’ Kennedy said. “So he was left with no horses."

Billy Turner, left, trainer for Seattle Slew, and Jean Cruguet, Seattle Slew's jockey, sign autographs for horse racing fans before the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 6, 2015, in Elmont, N.Y. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah will try for the first Triple Crown win since Affirmed won it in 1978.(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Billy Turner, left, trainer for Seattle Slew, and Jean Cruguet, Seattle Slew's jockey, sign autographs for horse racing fans before the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 6, 2015, in Elmont, N.Y. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah will try for the first Triple Crown win since Affirmed won it in 1978.(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

After another stint in rehab in 2016, Turner joined his wife in Florida, where they lived in a townhouse on the Ocala Jockey Club, a 900-acre horse farm. The Turners worked for the owners, Erik and Pavla Nygaard, and in turn received discounted rent of $750 a month.

The Nygaards sold the farm and the townhouses they owned on it before the Turners' lease was terminated.

“Every single sunset was like a photo session," said Turner’s daughter, Nelle. “It was just live oaks and beautiful sunsets and all kind of birds and a few gators here and there. Ponds and horses, it was gorgeous.’’

Turner enjoyed watching the horses as he coasted around the grounds on a riding lawn mower. But in May 2019, an accident on the lawn mower changed his life.

Turner ran over a branch that struck him in the neck, resulting in a broken neck and a brain injury that affected his balance and ability to swallow, according to his wife.

Doctors also found something else: Turner had prostate cancer that had spread to his bones.

Facing tens of thousands of dollars in healthcare expenses, Turner and his wife benefited from a GoFundMe campaign that raised almost $50,000.

"We were grateful for every nickel,'' Patti Turner said. "I wouldn't say the (horse racing) industry ever failed Bill, and he never blamed anyone for his own failings.''

In sobriety, Patti Turner said, her husband learned to let go of resentments, including being fired as Seattle Slew's trainer. He loved to talk about the great horse and toward the end of his life had a memorable encounter.

On the horse farm in Reddick where Billy Turner lived before being forced out of the townhouse, he met Rick Wallace, a horseman who lived on the same property. Wallace introduced himself to Turner and told him about one of his horses, a "grandson" of Seattle Slew.

“I asked him to come and meet Munson Slew and he did," Wallace said. “He was very complimentary in how the horse looked like Slew.

“You could always tell he was on his game when he put his black cap on and came out and had conversations with you. But I think the antidote for Billy is just ask him a question about a horse and he could answer it, and that’s what I did every time we’d talk to him."

The old trainer never grew tired of telling stories, and perhaps the best one of all was about the man who made history with Seattle Slew.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Billy Turner, trainer of legendary Seattle Slew, and his sad death