Commentary: Drill Bits

Commentary: Drill Bits
Photo: Rick Samuels
Billy Turner, trainer of Seattle Slew
by Bill Nack

Billy Turner, the last living trainer to win the Triple Crown—the horseman who so deftly guided Seattle Slew through the perilous straits of the spring classics in 1977—was hardly surprised at the outcome of the 140th Belmont Stakes (gr. I) June 7, given that favored Big Brown had been barely trained for the race.

But Turner, now 68, was stunned and even outraged by Kent Desormeaux’ ride aboard the horse, if indeed it can even be characterized as a ride.

“We had a disaster yesterday,” Turner said, after he finished training his stable of horses the day after the Belmont. “I’ll tell you one thing. You never, ever pull up a horse who’s structurally sound. No jock should ever pull up a horse in a classic race. If he had bobbled, that’s one thing. But he had a hard time pulling him up. When he did pull him up, he was sound! He took him out of the race. In the 1960s, ’70s, and even into the 1980s, the New York stewards would have run him (Desormeaux) out of New York and told him not to come back.”

Told that Desormeaux was getting accolades for protecting the horse, Turner blurted, “Protecting him from what?!”

No, no. By Turner’s lights, Desormeaux’ decision to ease Big Brown was analogous to the ending of the welterweight championship fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran in 1980, a joust known forever and famously as the “no mas” fight. Sensing that he was going to be badly beaten and even humiliated by a fitter, faster Leonard, Duran threw up his arms in the middle of the ring and, for the ages, declared to the referee, “No mas! No more box.” In truth, the Panamanian boxer suffered from an excess of pride—he had achieved an iconic status in his native land—and he simply could not face the prospect of being whipped bloody before millions of people. So he bailed out.

Turner sensed the same fear of humiliation at work in Desormeaux’ performance—a kind of “no mas” ride that had the same bad odor to it.

“He was getting beat and he couldn’t stand it,” Turner said. “When I saw him pull up, I thought, ‘Oh, no! He’s broken down and the rider’s saving him.’ But then I saw him when he walked off and there was nothing wrong with the horse. The horse was happy. He would have beaten most of the horses in the Belmont…No wonder (trainer) Rick Dutrow had nothing to say after the race. What can you say? The stewards have got to do something to prevent this from becoming a regular practice. They can’t allow this kind of thing to go on.”

Turner’s indignation springs from roots that go deep in this game. He is not just the last Triple Crown trainer still alive and kicking hay bales, but he’s also still the only horseman ever to win it with an undefeated horse. The passage of time has only made this training feat appear all the more brilliant and remarkable. The man knows precisely what it takes to win the Triple Crown, and he says that he had made it a point, in bringing Slew to the Belmont 31 years ago, to make a study of what it took to prepare a 3-year-old to win at 12 furlongs in early June. What he learned back then, by looking at training regimens of horses like Chateaugay (1963) and Arts and Letters (1969), has been considerably strengthened by what he has witnessed in the Belmont since the days of the mighty Slew.

“I studied the Belmont going back to Stage Door Johnny (1968) and even further back, and those horses were drilled for the Belmont,” Turner said.

The old-fashioned trainers like Greentree’s John Gaver, who trained Stage Door Johnny, and Woody Stephens, who won those five Belmonts in a row, knew how and when to lean on a horse and get to the bottom of him.

“Woody and his whole shootin’ match of Belmont winners were drilled for the Belmont,” Turner said.

And, of course, there was Lucien Laurin with Secretariat. After setting two track records, in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, he worked three times at Belmont Park: three-quarters in 1:121⁄5, a mile in 1:344⁄5 (galloping out nine furlongs in 1:48 and change), and a half-mile in :463⁄5 on top of the race. There is no need here to recall how he performed in the Belmont Stakes.

No doubt stepping gingerly around that quarter crack, Dutrow worked Big Brown twice in five weeks after the colt won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I): a two-furlong work at Pimlico in :25.40 on the morning of the Preakness (gr. I)—a race, not incidentally, in which his Beyer Speed Figure plunged to 100 after reaching a Kentucky Derby high of 109—and a five-furlong move in a minute flat, breezing, four days before the Belmont.

What Turner knew was that Big Brown would have had to be a veritable Pegasus to win the Belmont off a work load that would not have turned a hair on a 2-year-old maiden claimer.

Turner was not alone in figuring that the quarter crack, which had forced the colt to miss three days of training, was driving his training schedule. Or lack of it. Turner knew that interruptions caused by physical problems could have a deadening effect on a horse’s ability to perform in this longest and most testing of the Triple Crown races. In fact, nagging physical problems outright killed the chances of at least two exceptional horses racing for the sport’s ultimate bauble.

“Canonero II couldn’t drill for the Belmont and he got beat,” Turner recalled. “And Majestic Prince couldn’t drill and he got beat. And they were good horses! But they couldn’t train and so they got beat. I figured if Big Brown could win the Belmont off that training, he was not mortal. He was immortal. If he won, he’d be above description, because if you miss training coming to the Belmont it really, really hurts.”

All of which conspired to make this Triple Crown the most anti-climactic in modern history, certainly since this writer began watching races in the mid-1950s and following the Triple Crown since Northern Dancer lost the Belmont, and the Crown, in 1964. What made it such an anti-climax, to be sure, was the overwhelming sense that this colt was truly exceptional, and that if any horse could overcome adversity, it was this strapping bay with the little star on his forehead. After all, he had already surmounted and outrun his pedigree: his sire, Boundary, was a confirmed sprinter, and his maternal grandsire, Nureyev, was a miler who sired a lot of good turf horses. Brownie was a freak.

Indeed, he had also overcome the historical odds at every turn. Even on the morning after the race, the man who had just won the Belmont, trainer Nick Zito, was still talking about Big Brown’s five-length triumph in the Florida Derby (gr. I), when he broke from post position 12, as though it were among the marvels of the modern age.

“Horses just don’t win from out there at Gulfstream,” Zito said. “He was awesome.”
He became the first horse in 93 years to win the Kentucky Derby with only three lifetime starts coming into it, and he won it with a flare and panache suggesting he was on his way to joining the company of the indubitable giants—from those 11 Triple Crown winners to horses like Forego, Dr. Fager, and Cigar.

For those who study and revere the history of this sport, all of the talk about the colt’s controversial connections was an interesting diversion, perhaps, but had nothing to do with what the colt was doing on the track, or with his place in history. Big Brown had as much to do with picking his owners and trainer as he had to do with picking his own sire and dam, and to hold him somehow accountable for his human connections is as foolish as it is unfair.

Big Brown had come to Belmont to make history, all the distractions and adversities be damned, and what we saw was the failure in the Belmont of the seventh Triple Crown candidate in the last 12 years. There is a distinct possibility, after this grim fiasco, that we’ve seen the last of Big Brown, and that our final memory of him will be of his jockey knuckling down on him and getting no response, taking a strong hold of him on the turn—when he saw he had no chance to win—and then cantering slowly home, to the cheers of some and to the shock of others.

“If he doesn’t run again,” Turner said, “all you’ll remember is that Big Brown won three grade Is and that’s all. To me it’s just sad—real sad. I think he is a really good horse.”
Just how good, of course, we may never know.

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