Heroes and Friends: Seattle Slew, Jean Cruguet and Billy Turner

Jean Cruget celebrates after winning the Triple Crown aboard Seattle Slew (photo via CBS News).

Jean Cruget celebrates after winning the Triple Crown aboard Seattle Slew (photo via CBS News).

Forty years ago, on June 11, 1977, Seattle Slew won the Belmont Stakes to become the 10th horse in American racing history to win the Triple Crown.

This is not a work of horse racing history or journalism, this is personal. Seattle Slew is my all-time favorite thoroughbred — I carry his obituary in my wallet to this day.  And, much to my shock, I’ve become friends with the two amazing men in his life who, with great love, carried the mighty, war-dancing horse into history books.

William H. “Billy” Turner and Jean Cruguet won the Triple Crown with Seattle Slew.  It was a team effort; for as strong and gifted as he was, Slew could not have done it alone.

So, no history lesson here.  This is a love letter to Jean and Billy — or, rather, a love letter about them.

Eight years ago in Georgetown, I happened to meet Jean Cruguet at Old Friends. I was surprised, as I didn’t expect to encounter any historic humans that day. And, faced with one of my heroes, I got goofy.  I stammered a lot and couldn’t stop talking.

It came up that I’d always wanted to write a book or screenplay about him (Cruguet) and the Slew saga. (Note to self and wannabe writers: Unfortunately, one needs to have either a patron who provides funds during the writing of such a tome — or an advance from a producer/publisher.)  So, the screenplay hasn’t happened (yet), but, over the next several weeks, Jean and I became fast friends.

He invited me to his home in Versailles (Kentucky, not France) to meet his wife, Denyse.  (When they met in France in the 1950s, she was the only female horse trainer in the country — a brilliantly-accomplished horsewoman.) In 2008, however, she was bedridden — the victim of a debilitating stroke.

Now, Jean was her caregiver — her devoted companion — always-and-forever, the love of her life. During my visit, Jean spoke to her gently, sweetly, in French, then, introduced us in English.

Jean assured Denyse that he and I would be just around the house, talking horses. We went to the TV room to watch some races.

As you can imagine, that TV room was a private museum:  black and yellow everywhere.  Seattle Slew paraphernalia on every table, mantle — even the floor.

It was such a thrill to sit on the sofa, drinking ice-cold beer with my favorite jockey ever.  I was enthralled as he commented during every race. He talked about what the jockeys did well — and about what they did wrong.  He snapped his fingers, made chirping noises at the tiny, televised horses. He made verbal notes on the horses: were they happy? Sad? Sick?

I was watching horse racing with one of the greatest jockeys in the history of racing and I confess that my mind was racing to other places. What if, even after being a race fan for 48 years, Jean summed me up and concluded that I was stupid?  Worse yet, what if, based on my girlish gushing, Jean concluded that I was a fraud — not racing-knowledgeable at all?

But he didn’t kick me out of his house with disgust and, after the races, we walked down the hall to his office.  There, we sat cross-legged on the floor for hours, going through scrapbooks, piles of papers and photographs.  Every photo, each award, came with a story, a laugh and, sometimes, with a tear.

I left Jean’s house that first day loaded down with gifts — including an autographed, numbered Richard Stone Reeves print of Jean atop Slew before the Flamingo and a beautiful 8” x 10” black-and-white photo of him taken on his first day at a barn in America. He was pictured sitting on a box, black knee-high boots, handsome as all get-out. The young French hero who came to America with his wife and a dream — and 17 years later, he’d become just one of 10 (at that time) jockeys ever to win the Triple Crown.

Two weeks later, Jean invited me to join him at his best friend’s house to watch the Preakness on their humongous TV.  How could I turn down an offer like that?  To watch the Preakness with someone who’s actually won it?  He asked me to pick him up at an appointed time and I arrived with a small gift in hand.

I’d decided, a few days earlier, to get a pot of Black-Eyed Susans for Jean and tie them up with black and yellow ribbons. A simple task, I thought.

Well, try to find Black-Eyed Susans, in Kentucky, in May. No such thing. I went everywhere: markets, nurseries, enormous farms — no one had blooming flowers, only the promise that they’d get some… in a few weeks.

I didn’t have a few weeks to produce the goods.  I had two days.

Finally, desperately, I settled on a pot of almost-bloomed Black-Eyed Susans.  Content that at least the symbolism was there, I tied the ribbons around the pot.

On Saturday, Jean opened the door (like a scene from a movie) and I thrust the pot at him, blurting out something like, “Anyone who’s won the Preakness should get Black-Eyed Susans delivered to him, don’t you think?”

He took them, tears in his eyes. Then, he put them down and hugged me in silence. I believe that was the moment when we realized that he was more than my racing hero — we were friends. For friends see past heroics, to the soul of the human whose achievement 31 years before, still deserved recognition… from someone.

RONNIE MARION CRUGUET

The author (middle) visits with Jean Cruguet (photo courtesy of Marion Altieri).

We went to Milli’s and Jon’s (Jean’s friends) and, sitting next to Jean on their big sofa all afternoon, I slid momentarily back into fan mode.  As the horses entered the gate, I just had to ask:  how did it feel to be there — on Seattle-Freakin’-Slew — entering that gate after winning the Kentucky Derby just two weeks prior?

He told me. And his feelings were so deep and so thoughtful that I thought, again, that this gentleman really is the kind of horseman that the Sport of Kings needs. The world needs more Jean Cruguets — people who know and love horses intimately and who care about their welfare with all their hearts.

And who, even when in the starting gate at Pimlico for the second-biggest race of their lives, w waxed philosophical as he whispered in Slew’s ear that they were safe, together — a team.

Jean and I don’t see each other that often now, as we live 1,000 miles apart.  He doesn’t do the Internet, so emailing is out.  And I doubt that his phone is “smart”.

But he sends Christmas cards every year and calls just to check in.  We always make a point of seeing each other when we’re in the same city or at the same track.

In April of 2016, he’d heard through the non-Internet grapevine about my open-heart surgery. Panicked, he called during my 32 days in hospital, to ask if I was all right.

How did it happen?  Did I need anything? Was I alone?

I cried when we hung up. To think that such a great man, who has achieved so much, actually cared sincerely about the state of my health.

Jean did more for my healing in that one call than any medicine in my IV.

I smile, still, every time I see my friend’s face on TV or read his name in a racing publication, because I know that he doesn’t forget anyone who’s in his circle.  He rode amongst the stars, he whispered (literally) into the ear of a legendary horse and, yet, as Thoreau once wrote: Time and distance between friends means nothing.

Billy Turner, My Hero

Billy Turner and the author (photo courtesy of Marion Altieri).

Billy Turner and the author (photo courtesy of Marion Altieri).

I made a big fool of myself the first time I met Billy Turner in person — and I don’t care.

In 2012, I was on the Committee for CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services’ annual gala.  Every year, we honored a famous thoroughbred and its connections. So, of course in 2012, I suggested Seattle Slew, as 2012 was the 35th anniversary of his Triple Crown.

Sadly, Jean couldn’t make it to Saratoga, as he’d just had carpal tunnel surgery in both wrists, but Sally and Dr. Jim Hill committed, as did my hero, Billy Turner and his wonderful wife, Patti Rich Turner.

The invitation that we’d sent to the Turners didn’t make it to their home, so I decided to deliver another one in person when I went to Elmont, New York, the week prior to the 2012 Belmont Stakes.

Besides, it would give me the opportunity to meet the great trainer in person.  I’d respected and loved Slew’s “barn father” for decades, so I was tres excited.  Patti and I arranged to meet at Billy’s barn at Belmont Park at 5:30 in the morning, the day before the Belmont Stakes.

I sat in my car, nursing my black coffee. The sun was rising, the air was damp, horses nickered and I was in Horse Heaven.

The Turners arrived.

Composing myself, I got out and made my way over, smiling and calm, right hand extended for a handshake.

Then I lost it.

Unexpectedly, I exploded into a torrent of tears.  Breathing as if I was having an anxiety attack, I could barely speak.

“Oh my God, you’re Billy Turner, you trained my favorite horse!” I blurted by way of introduction.

Dear, dear Billy.  I think he wasn’t sure what to do with a hysterical woman — a stranger, no less.  Hesitantly, he started to pat my shoulder.  Patti urged him to hug me and that did the trick. Of course, then, I felt so wildly stupid, I didn’t want to let him see my face. Eye contact would confirm for him that I was an overly emotional idiot.

But I dried up and we sat for a while.  It was then that I experienced the great and gentle manner that is the mark of true greatness.

Billy was kind, intelligent, good-natured, shy and truly appreciative of Patti, his life mate and assistant trainer.  I came away from that day excited, overwhelmed and joyous. For meeting Billy was something I never thought would happen in my lifetime.

And, unlike so many other trainers who boast and who are loud and obviously proud of their achievements, here was one of only a handful of humans who’d ever won the coveted Triple Crown and, yet, he was quiet, shy and humble.

I’ve gotten to know both Billy and Patti much better since that day five years ago, and I consider them to be friends. I believe they feel the same. We appreciate each other and both keep in via social media.

At the prodding of the media, Jean Cruguet hopped aboard American Pharoah following the latter's Triple Crown triumph (photo courtesy of Marion Altieri).

At the prodding of the media, Jean Cruguet hopped aboard American Pharoah following the latter’s Triple Crown triumph (photo courtesy of Marion Altieri).

My mind still is blown every time Billy “likes” something I’ve posted or takes the time to comment. And seeing each other always is occasion for hugs, smiles and video interviews on “Talk of the Track”.  I’m honored to count Billy as a valued friend.

Both Billy and Jean belong in the Racing Hall of Fame.

It hasn’t happened yet, but, like many other race fans, I vow to continue working for that day when I can sit in the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion in Saratoga and give a standing ovation to both Billy Turner and Jean Cruguet as they assume their rightful places in the Hall — alongside the mighty Slew.

Jean Cruguet was still exercising horses in the morning until about four years ago. Every year, Cruguet greets fans at the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and at Saratoga Racecourse and other sports memorabilia events.  He’s scheduled to be at Equestricon in Saratoga on Tuesday, Aug. 15, along with his friends and fellow Triple Crown riders, Ron Turcotte (Secretariat) and Steve Cauthen (Affirmed).

Sadly, Jean’s beloved Denyse died in September, 2010.

Billy Turner is training horses in Florida and makes forays to Belmont and Saratoga for at least part of those meets. 

Marion Altieri
Marion Altieri started riding Quarter Horses the same summer that her mother took her to Saratoga for the races. She was four, but the horse love stuck — and she’s never left the rail (her mom’s nickname for her from birth was “Mare” and it proved prophetic). Now a seasoned writer, editor and raconteur, her words have graced the paper and virtual pages of many international thoroughbred and Arabian racing magazines and websites and even the official promotional video for the 2014 Dubai World Cup.
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