William H. “Billy” Turner, the trainer of the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, passed away peacefully in cancer hospice care at his home in Reddick, Florida 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 February 29, 1940, in Rochester New York, and grew up riding and fox hunting in Pennsylvania's horse country. He began his career as a steeplechase jockey as a teenager under trainer Burley Cocks. He rode for five years, until 1963, when his 6'2″ height made it difficult to continue. He worked as an assistant trainer until 1966.
At the age of 26, he went out on his own and was based for most of his career at Belmont Park. Given Seattle Slew as a two-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 Grade I Champagne. He 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.
Turner won 533 races in his career, and in addition to Seattle Slew, 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. He 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.