REDDICK, Fla.--William H. “Billy” Turner, who learned his trade in steeplechasing and went on to train the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, passed away peacefully in cancer hospice care at his home in Reddick, Friday evening, Dec. 31, according to a press release from Pavla Nygaard at the Ocala Jockey Club.
He was 81 years old.
Turner was born Feb. 29, 1940, in Rochester N.Y., and grew up riding and fox hunting in Pennsylvania's Chester Country.
He began his career as a steeplechase jockey as a teenager under trainer Burley Cocks.
“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.”
He rode for five years, until 1963, when his 6'2″ height made it difficult to continue.
He then worked as Cocks' assistant trainer until 1966 where he learned his attention to detail.
“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.”
"BILLY GREW UP in Unionville, rode out for Burley Cocks, rode in the Maryland Hunt Cup and went on to be a famous Triple Crown winning trainer," said Patti Miller, who analyses horses' gaits for EQB and advises owners and trainers on horses to buy at sales. "Billy always told me Unionville was `home'."
"To me, Bill Turner was my mentor," said Miller. I just spoke with him a little over a week ago. Sharp as a tack, we discussed what might be the `next caper'. Always upbeat, regardless of the odds. he had always told me you can't scratch because there is another one or two entries who might run a better number. You still had a good chance. Especially if Bill Turner led them up.
"His passing has left a big hole in my heart. Bill helped me in so many ways, back when I was a dumb kid who wanted to ride races. Later, when I was training horses, he would only shake his head and say, `Glutton for punishment, aren't you, Miller?'
"Turner was the ultimate student of the horse. When I started having some success in the bloodstock trade, Bill once told me (just to keep me humble) `Patti, just find me a horse that can sprint a mile and a half, and then maybe, with God's' help, I can try to keep him in one piece.'
"One of a kind, Bill turner loved horses more than people. And, as I always knew, Bill already had that horse that could sprint a mile and a half, and that Turner had managed to keep that horse, the famous Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, and many other graded winners, sound and able."
"God forgive and rest his soul," said Miller. "He is sorely missed."
AT THE AGE of 26, Turner went out on his own and was based for most of his career at Belmont Park.
Getting Seattle Slew as a 2-year-old in 1976, he trained the colt to an Eclipse Award in an unbeaten, three-for-three season that culminated with a win in the GI Champagne.
Slew went on to become the first undefeated Triple Crown winner, and would go on to become the Horse of the Year in 1977.
The colt was taken away from him after tasting his first defeat in the GI Swaps S. at Hollywood, and handed over to trainer Doug Peterson.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981, Seattle Slew was under Turner's care until his 4-year-old season.
Turner campaigned the son of Bold Reasoning through his undefeated Triple Crown victory for owners Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill.
Seattle Slew was named Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male in 1977.
Turner was based at Belmont Park 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.
In Equibase statistics from 1976-2016, Turner trained the winners of 533 races for earnings from his horses of $17,501,009 in a career that spanned several decades.
Prior to 1976, some Equibase statistics are incomplete.
He enjoyed his highest-earning year in 2005 when his runners bankrolled $1,034,084.
In addition to Seattle Slew, Turner trained other major stakes winners such as Czaravich, the winner of the Carter H., Withers S., Jerome H. and the GI Metropolitan H.; Play On, who won the Withers S., and was second in the GI Preakness; and Punch Line, who won 21 races in his seven-year career, including the Fall Highweight H. at Aqueduct.
A resident of Marion County, Florida since his retirement from training in 2016, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer almost two years ago, which had metastasized.
He was admitted to the hospital Friday, Dec. 17, after suffering significant shortness of breath.
He had chosen not to receive further treatment for his cancer and was transferred to hospice care on Tuesday.
His wife Pat was next to him when he passed, according to Nygaard.
The press release reads: “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 Billy's wife Pat spent a big part of his last two days reading Billy from the 18 pages of messages sent from around the nation.”
“Billy Turner passed away this afternoon peacefully at home,” said Pat Turner. “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.”
A memorial and celebration of life service will be held at a later date.