Turner among the best trainers

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During my 55 years of watching, betting and writing about Thoroughbred horse racing, I periodically try to rank the best racetracks, horses, jockeys and trainers. For this week’s column, I will focus on the trainers who impressed the most with their skill and performances under pressure. Next week, I’ll do the same for the best jockeys I have seen.

Frankly I think some of the names on my lists will surprise you. For instance, I believe one of the most underrated trainers in racing history is Billy Turner, Jr.

Presently hospitalized back east for a variety of lingering ailments, Turner merely developed and trained the great Seattle Slew, who swept the 1977 Triple Crown with Turner’s uncanny sense of what to do with that horse and when.

Nevertheless, he was fired a few months after the Triple Crown by an ungrateful Karen and Mickey Taylor. This, after Turner recommended rest for Seattle Slew, while the Taylors wanted to ship the colt to California to run in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. And yes, in the worst performance of his 17-ace career, Seattle Slew went on to lose the ’77 Swaps Stakes by 14 lengths! Clearly, the Taylors should have listened to this great horseman.

Two years after Slew’s historic run, Turner demonstrated he had the talent of a man who should be (but is not) in the Hall of Fame.

First he trained Czaravich to 13 straight in-the-money performances, including wins in three important stakes – the Carter Handicap, the Jerome and the Metropolitan Mile. Then in 1984, Turner developed Play On, who merely won the Withers, before finishing second to Gate Dancer in the Preakness.

Maintaining a much lighter training schedule in the 1990’s, Turner trained Punch Line to 21 victories through an extended career into the colt’s final season as an 8-year-old when he surprisingly won the Fall Highweight Handicap carrying 136 pounds!

As I said, Billy Turner Jr., remains the most underrated truly-great horse trainer of my lifetime.

Other terrific trainers who are among the best I have seen include Jack Van Berg, Frank Whiteley Jr., D.Wayne Lukas, Elliot Burch, Charlie Whittingham, Billy Mott and Bob Baffert. And, I admit Shug McGaughey, Allen Jerkens, Neil Drysdale and Ron McAnally rank very close to the eight I am including here.

Van Berg not only won more than 6,460 races, he trained Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And that was two full years after he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Make no mistake, Jack still is training horses quite well, thank you.

Whiteley Jr., was among the most patient and precise horse trainers the game has ever known. While he never tried to make any national list, Whitely’s win percentage always was among the best in the country and virtually every horse he sent to the post seemed ready to run a good race. As a pure horseman, Whiteley had few peers.

Somewhat less productive in the past decade, Lukas still ranks second to his disciple Pletcher for winning the most money in this sport.

Great with maidens, Lukas also was among the best ever with fillies and there is nothing wrong with his record with colts. Lukas not only won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes four times each, he also won the Preakness six times. Beyond all of that, more than two dozen Lukas trained horses were able to earn national championships.

Although Burch did excellent work with good 3-year-olds, he and Charlie Whittingham rank close together on my list of great trainers because both were simply superb with older horses on the grass.

Among Burch’s greatest accomplishments, he developed three different Horse of the Year winners – Sword Dancer in 1959, Arts and Letters in ’69 and Fort Marcy the following year.

Whittingham was able to win more than 2,400 races and 660 stakes along with being voted North America’s top trainer three times. Most interestingly, after staying far away from the Kentucky Derby through most of his great career, in 1986, at 73 years of age, Whittingham trained Ferdinand to a Derby victory! Three years later, he won another Derby with Sunday Silence.

Contemporary top trainers Baffert and Mott are worlds apart in how they display their great talents.

Mott, who learned his trade under Van Berg, became the youngest trainer at age 45 in 1998 to be elected to the Hall of Fame. In 1995 and 1996, Mott was America’s top trainer as the man behind the great horse Cigar, who, despite Mott’s prowess with grass horses, proved a flop on that surface. Yet, Cigar became a tremendous champion after Mott moved Cigar to dirt tracks.

During one remarkable stretch, Cigar won 16 straight, including the $5 million Dubai World Cup. Cigar aside, Mott consistently wins his share of races at most distances with older horses and remains one of this country’s best turf horse trainers. He also won his first Triple Crown race – with Drosselmeyer in the 2010 Belmont Stakes and has won 10 meet titles at historic Saratoga and 10 at Belmont Park.

Baffert is a sensational trainer of two-year-olds, sprinters and 3-year-olds with the talent to win Championship races. His handling of American Pharoah to a rare Triple Crown sweep last year was even more remarkable when he also gave that terrific colt just enough rest and preparation to also win the prestigious $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Baffert also has trained three other Kentucky Derby winners, five other winners of the Preakness and another colt to win the Belmont Stakes.

This year, he also trained Arrogate to a track record performance in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga and to a sharp victory over California Chrome in the BCup Classic. At the bottom line, there is nothing Bob Baffert cannot do with a good horse. He simply ranks alongside the greatest trainers I have ever seen.

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