By Mike Farrell
“Tempus fugit!” the Romans proclaimed several millennia ago. Yes, time seems to take flight at an even quicker pace this time of year as we replace the calendars on the wall with the 2022 editions.
Here’s hoping everyone had a safe and happy New Year’s celebration. Somewhat lost in the holiday merriment was the news trainer Billy Turner died on the last day of 2021. He was 81.
His passing was a sobering reminder of the passage of time. Has it really been 45 years since “Slewmania” swept the nation?
Turner was the central figure in the Seattle Slew saga, the captivating story of the $17,500 yearling purchase who swept the 1977 Triple Crown.
The “Slew Crew,” the ownership team of Karen and Mickey Taylor and Sally and Jim Hill, sent the horse to Turner, a former steeplechase jockey. The rest, as they say, was history … and a textbook lesson in preparing a horse for a major challenge. Turner believed in lightly training the colt and results were dramatic. Seattle Slew became the first undefeated Triple Crown winner, a feat equaled by Justify in 2018.
It wasn’t all champagne and roses the rest of the way. Turner was fired after Slew suffered his first defeat in the Swaps Stakes (G1). Turner never wanted to ship to California for that race, and the relationship with the owners ruptured.
Turner never scaled those heights again, and he seemed content with that. The lanky, courtly gentleman with a wry sense of humor spent most of his career stabled in New York with a relatively small stable of about 30 horses. He never had the desire to go big and bold, preferring a manageable operation where he could personally supervise each runner.
He was a gentleman of the old school training in an era of larger-than-life legends. The 1970s produced names that live forever in racing lore: Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Forego, Affirmed and Alydar. And Seattle Slew.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to cover Turner’s end-of-life medical expenses. Pay it a visit if you can, and leave a recollection because time is flying by.
Time marches on to the weekend
Back to the present, the New Year is off to a slow start on the stakes front. There are only three graded stakes on the calendar this weekend, two of them on grass: the Tropical Turf (G3) at Gulfstream on Saturday and the Las Cienegas (G3) for filly and mare sprinters on Sunday at Santa Anita.
The richest race of the two-day span in the $200,000 Santa Ynez (G2) for 3-year-old fillies on Santa Anita’s Saturday card.
The Road to the Triple Crown is on hiatus until Jan 22 when it returns with the Lecomte (G3) at the Fair Grounds.
The first Saturday of the New Year opened with a trio of 3-year-old stakes, each dangling 10 Kentucky Derby (G1) qualifying points to the winner.
At sloppy and sealed Aqueduct, Courvoisier splashed to a 1 ¼-length victory in Jerome in his first stakes try. He certainly has the pedigree to be a leading contender. His daddy is Tapit, so distance won’t be a concern. The dam is 2014 Champion 2-Year-Old Filly Take Charge Brandi, so the lineage is there.
Trainer Kelly Breen indicated the Withers (G3) at the Big A on Feb. 5 will be the next target.
“That’s the plan,” Breen said. “Right now, he seems to like the track and the Withers is there, so we’re staying home with him for now.”
Smarten Up and Cooke Creek, second and third respectively in the Jerome, are also on target for a rematch in the Withers.
It was also wet at Oaklawn for the $250,000 Smarty Jones where Dash Attack gave trainer Ken McPeek another Triple Crown contender.
Dash Attack, now 2-for-2, joins a barn blessed with 3-year-old talent including Smile Happy, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2), Rattle N Roll, winner of the Breeders‘ Futurity (G1) and Tiz the Bomb, who broke his maiden by 14 ¼ lengths on dirt at a mile last summer at Ellis Park before becoming a Grade 2 winner on grass.
“I’m in a pretty enviable position right now,” McPeek said.
Never a dull moment with Baffert
And then there was the aptly named Sham (G3) at Santa Anita.
Bob Baffert saddled the first-two finishers: Newgrange and Rockefeller who should have earned 10 and 4 Derby qualifying points. Except for one small problem. Baffert is banned from this year’s Derby, as explained in Santa Anita’s race recap.
“Although any Baffert runners are not now eligible for Kentucky Derby qualifying points, the conditions of the race state that the winner is to receive 10 points, second, four, third, two points and the fourth-place finisher, Mackinnon, one point.”
That makes it perfectly clear, right?
It’s confusing now. Imagine the chaos on Derby entry day if Baffert has two or three of the top contenders and none are permitted to enter.
Just when you think you’ve seen everything …
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.