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Jim Price: Looking at the great ‘what if’ had Turbulator raced at Santa Anita

It’s not hard to imagine legendary Playfair horse Turbulator making history during his peak racing days at bigger tracks such as Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. (Four Footed Fotos, Associated Press)
It’s not hard to imagine legendary Playfair horse Turbulator making history during his peak racing days at bigger tracks such as Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. (Four Footed Fotos, Associated Press)
By Jim Price For The Spokesman-Review

On a crisp Sunday evening, almost half a century ago, nearly 6,000 people crowded into an aging structure just off Spokane’s East Sprague Avenue. Moments before 6 o’clock, they let out a full-throated roar.

Turbulator, a dark bay gelding with a knobby right knee, punctuated his charge toward history with a dramatic victory in the Playfair Mile, the championship event for annual horse-racing seasons at Playfair Race Course.

He won with a customary flourish, erupting from the middle of the pack to overpower his competition. By the time he reached the finish line, victorious by a widening length, spectators were shouting, a wall of sound that lasted minutes and might have been heard downtown.

It was Oct. 19, 1969. A few of you were there. So was I, the track announcer and rookie publicist. One week later, Turbulator added a victory in the Inland Empire Marathon and topped off the most extraordinary campaign in this city’s substantial racing history.

The grandstand, designed by Kirtland Cutter, Spokane’s paramount architect, opened in 1901 as the centerpiece of the Spokane Interstate Fair. Like most fairs, this one included horse racing. After the fair went on hiatus before migrating to its present site, the old grounds became Playfair in 1935. And among the decades that followed, this one racehorse overcame a shaky start to stir speculation that he should have been matched against the nation’s best.

Turbulator had begun Playfair’s 1969 meet as a maiden, a horse that had never won, and finished it with seven straight victories. Twelve months later, he was a legend. Now his reputation’s secure as a Pacific Northwest phenomenon. Badges and T-shirts proclaimed “I Love Tubby!” Turbulators, you see, are tub-like devices used on aching equine legs and joints.

Although Tubby’s career might tax the imagination, this fairy tale just about came true.

Trainer Tom Crawford and his wife, Marguerite, had planned Turbulator’s breeding, matching Cold Command, a prominent Washington sire, with their mare Fur Piece, whose daddy, By Zeus, had rallied for a record victory in Santa Anita’s San Juan Capistrano Handicap. Sire and dam both descended from famous Triple Crown winners, Count Fleet and War Admiral.

Turbulator had been a frisky colt, eager to outrun his pasture mates but rough around the edges. After gelding him, Crawford put Turbulator into training at Playfair in 1967. But when a virus spread through the stable area, the horse fell seriously ill. The next spring, he ran into an above-ground sprinkler, damaging his right knee so badly that Crawford offered to trade him for two cows. The deal didn’t pan out, but the horse didn’t approach racing form until June 1969. By then, J.M. (Marv) Farnsworth and his wife, friends of the Crawfords, had become their partners.

After a trial run against seasoned horses at Coeur d’Alene Turf Club’s still unrecognized meet, Crawford trailered Turbulator to Portland Meadows, where, on June 16, he entered him in a maiden sprint for a $1,500 claiming price. Racing insiders around the region bet their money. But the horse ran second. Again, on June 23, after looming at midstretch, he finished second.

On Saturday, Aug. 16, Playfair launched its fall season. Six days later, in a six-furlong sprint, veteran jockey Frank Inda steered Turbulator to victory. The $6.30 payoff was no surprise, but the final time of 1 minute, 12 3/5 seconds should have caught someone’s eye.

In the next nine weeks, he won six more, refining what became his trademark style, a leisurely beginning followed, entering the final quarter mile, by a burst of speed that carried him past the front-runners.

On Aug. 29, he ran a mile in 1:39 flat, race-horse time for a near-novice on Playfair’s five-furlong track. Next, he bulled his way past a big-bodied fellow prospect for his third win. Impressed but curious about the narrow, half-length margin, I asked Dan Castle, who had replaced Inda, why he hadn’t ridden more vigorously.

“I was afraid to whip him,” Castle said, “If he’d gone any faster, I might have fallen off.”

On Sept. 14, Turbulator came from 12 lengths back to beat good, experienced rivals by almost five lengths in the Washington State Breeders Handicap, covering a mile in 1:38. Two weeks later, he ran the distance in 1:37. His next challenge would be the Playfair Mile.

British Columbia invader Silver Double, a 3-year-old, had established himself as the top challenger with a front-running victory in the 66th running of the historic Spokane Derby.

The night before the Mile, track photographer John Lincoln and I visited a downtown piano lounge, where a man overheard our conversation. “Who do you think will win?” he asked. “Turbulator,” I said. “I’m an owner of Silver Double,” the man said. “If you’d like to bet, name your price.” I swallowed hard and said, “How about a hundred?”

Silver Double took command at once and, as the field approached the stretch turn, he added to his comfortable lead. And then: “Here comes Turbulator!” After trailing by as many as a dozen lengths, Tubby made up the final four in fewer than 100 yards and won going away. The crowd went wild. The man from Canada showed up promptly with a crisp $100 bill.

The following Sunday, Turbulator made it 7 for 7, galloping to victory in the 2-mile Inland Empire Marathon. Was he a big horse at a small track or a real racehorse? There was only one certain way to find out.

Crawford wanted to take him to Santa Anita, where the winter seasons rank high on the American racing calendar. But Crawford, a heart attack survivor, had no other high-quality horses, so he decided not to go. “I might overtrain both the horse and myself,” he admitted.

What if they had gone?

Historically, Santa Anita, located in Arcadia, California, less than 20 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, opens the day after Christmas. Because weather limits racing opportunities that time of year, its annual meets attract top stables and jockeys from all over the country, offering major races in several categories. Almost any stakes winner might end up a national champion.

In 1969, two days before the opener, horsemen went on strike, demanding a larger share of the wagering pools. Negotiations, at times acrimonious, lasted a month. Racing didn’t begin until February, shortening the meet by one third.

What if Turbulator, now 5 and idle three months, had made his debut in a Feb. 7 sprint restricted to horses that hadn’t won $5,500 in one race since July 23. Tubby had barely earned $10,000 for his career. The field would cover a bit more than 6 1/2 furlongs on the famed turf course, with its downhill start and dogleg bend across the dirt track and onto the infield grass.

With the favorite’s role going to Baffle, a top sprinter trained by former jockey great Johnny Longden, it was a good spot for a tuneup. Baffle pressed the pace then pulled clear for a five-length victory in track-record time. In a field of 12, Turbulator raced near the rear of the pack then closed the gap as another stretch-runner rallied to finish second. Tubby was seventh, beaten by about nine lengths.

What if the shortened season, which had left owners with fewer opportunities for their good older horses, had forced Crawford to aim for the $75,000 added San Antonio Stakes? Two weeks later, the 1 1/8-mile fixture attracted a short field, but the starters included Rising Market and Tell, one-two in the opening-day renewal of the San Carlos Handicap.

Rising Star led the way for most of the first mile with Turbulator well behind the brisk pace. East Coast invader Dewan, coming off an excellent first outing, surged into the lead at midstretch and won by almost a length. The trailing group finished in a bunch, less than six lengths back. Tubby rallied for fifth and saved his entry fee.

What if, sufficiently encouraged, Crawford entered him back in the $110,000 added Santa Anita Handicap? The 1 1/4-mile dirt-course classic, on March 7, drew its usual high-class field. Nodouble, who had outrun Dewan and others as the San Pasqual Handicap favorite, was assigned a bracing 130 pounds. Turbulator squeaked into the field with a mere 110. Nodouble went postward at 6-5. Tubby was essentially ignored at about 76-1.

When two unlikely contenders set a blistering pace, it seemed certain that stretch-runners would prevail. Sure enough, after six furlongs in 1:09 2/5 and a mile in 1:34 1/5, here they came. Quicken Tree, a 7-year-old star on both coasts, got there first, coming from last to finish three-quarters of a length in front of Fiddle Isle, who had been 11th. Turbulator joined the charge, making up almost 12 lengths to finish fifth. Nodouble didn’t run a lick and wound up eighth.

What if Crawford decided to try the season’s major turf races? The San Luis Rey Handicap, at 1 1/2 miles on March 21, and the $125,000 added San Juan Capistrano, at almost 1 3/4 miles, are long-distance classics. Because the San Juan, on closing day, is restricted to the highest-weighted horses, entry often depends on a good showing in the San Luis Rey.

Fortunately for Turbulator, who had picked up a few pounds for his fifth-place finishes, the San Luis Rey drew 17 entries, forcing racing secretary Jimmy Kilroe to split the race into two divisions. Better yet, Tubby, assigned 114 pounds, drew into the less competitive second heat.

After another jackrabbit pace, Fiddle Isle, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, outfinished Hialeah invader Hitchock by a nose as the first-division favorite, setting an American record of 2:23. Quicken Tree was the horse to beat among Turbulator’s group, but he didn’t win. Quilche, ridden by former Playfair standout Jerry Lambert, got away with a leisurely pace and held on to win in 2:25 2/5. Tubby tracked Quicken Tree’s rally with his own and claimed third money, barely three lengths behind.

The promise of a Fiddle Isle-Quicken Tree rematch on April 4 was enough to excite most Southern California racing fans. When former national grass champion Fort Marcy flew across the country from Aqueduct and Vent du Nord checked in Florida with a five stakes-race winning streak, the San Juan Capistrano seemed certain to be one for the ages. Kilroe pegged Vent du Nord at 126 pounds, one more than Fiddle Isle and two more than Quicken Tree and Fort Marcy. Turbulator slipped into the field with 113, including Don Pierce, Playfair’s 1955 riding champion as an apprentice.

Surprisingly, the public settled on Hitchcock, carrying 119 pounds, as the 5-2 favorite. The other heavyweights had their advocates, but Turbulator, unproven despite his recent form, went postward at 37-1. Most of the starters, including Tubby, had won at extended distances.

The race began at the top of the grass-course hill and would require more than a full lap after the horses crossed onto the infield turf course. The field of 12 was off just before 5 o’clock.

Again, the pace was fast. Quicken Tree, Fiddle Isle and Turbulator remained at the rear, down the hill, across the dirt and by the stands for the first time. As they finished the first mile in a breathtaking 1:34 2/5, the speed began to fade with several of the favorites poised to take up the chase.

Leaving the far turn, Fiddle Isle made his move. Quicken Tree followed with Turbulator right behind him. The field swung into the stretch with Vent du Nord, Hitchcock and Fort Marcy side by side. Fiddle Isle loomed behind them, but here came Quicken Tree and Turbulator, who was accelerating on the far outside.

What a finish! Five horses passed the wire together. Only Vent du Nord had given way. Fans shouted approval, clinging to their mutual tickets with anticipation. Officials must have needed magnifying glasses to judge the photo. Finally, they posted the numbers.

Turbulator had won by a head, with Fiddle Isle and Quicken in a dead-heat for second, a nose in front of Fort Marcy. Hitchcock was beaten by only half a length, but he finished fifth. If this had happened, Tubby would have paid $76.80 to win.

Fort Marcy became Horse of the Year. Turbulator would have headed back to his real life in the Pacific Northwest. After pausing at Yakima Meadows long enough to win the Yakima Mile in record time, he took on the region’s best during Seattle’s summer meet at Longacres. After placing third in his debut, he widened his fan base with five wins in his next six starts.

In the Independence Day Handicap, Tubby hurdled Mark Jennings, whose mount had fallen, on his way to victory. Silver Double set the pace and finished second but was disqualified for interference. On July 26, in deep slop, Turbulator unleashed a spectacular rally to win the Joshua Green Cup. In the Aug. 16 Governor’s Handicap, although sprinting wasn’t his game, he broke the world record for 6 1/2 furlongs, stopping the timer in 1:14 flat. His new rider, Pierce’s younger brother, Larry, had held the record astride Sandy Fleet.

Two weeks later, Turbulator met Silver Double again in the season’s top event, the Longacres Mile. Tubby, assigned 123 pounds, went off at odds of 6-5. In the space of 95 seconds, they became the principals in the most extraordinary stakes race in Northwest history.

Silver Double, fresh from a track-record victory at Vancouver’s Exhibition Park, went right to the front. Astride Turbulator, Pierce’s left stirrup banged into the side of the starting gate, shattered into pieces and left him fighting for a foothold. Almost out of control at the clubhouse turn, Turbulator veered off course, nearly unseating Richard Wright aboard Honda Dream. A hundred yards later, still without purchase for his left foot, Pierce’s right foot came out of its stirrup, and he almost fell off.

Silver Double kept rolling. Turbulator, his rider just about resettled, had drifted to the rail and, as they approached the stretch, began to move up on his own. But he was trapped behind horses with no path to the outside. Silver Double won. Although Tubby, never free to make his usual sudden move, wound up fifth, he was beaten by only 2 1/2 lengths.

On Labor Day, on a sloppy track, Turbulator and Pierce charged past Silver Double to win the Seattle Handicap. A week later, Sept. 14, they took the Washington Championship by four lengths in track-record time as Pierce wrapped up the riding title.

Then, Crawford took Turbulator home.

At Playfair on Sept. 27, carrying Pierce and enough lead to make up 134 pounds, Tubby repeated his 1969 Washington State Breeders Handicap triumph. After half a mile, he was 20 lengths behind. Leaving the quarter pole, Pierce asked for speed, and I shouted, “And there he goes.” As they passed most of the field on the turn, I added, “Turbulator’s sixth. He’s fifth. He’s fourth. He’s third and going for the lead.” And he made it.

Turbulator and Pierce won by two lengths. The jam-packed crowd of 7,256 had cheered him in the paddock and in the post parade, and it roared again as they came down the stretch, galloped on out and returned to the winner’s circle.

With 14 victories in 22 official starts, it took rain to bring them down. Rainfall a few days before the Oct. 25 running of the Playfair Mile left the drying track sticky in spots. When Pierce asked Turbulator, under a record 138 pounds, to accelerate this time, the horse skidded on a wet spot and lost his action. When Tubby couldn’t regain his momentum, the good Oregon-bred Ruler’s Whirl held on to beat him by a neck.

Nonetheless, Turbulator completed a one-of-a-kind sweep. He was named Horse of the Meeting at all three Washington tracks.

He’d earned a long rest. Then, as winter neared its end, he came up with a leg problem and missed a full year. Months later, on Feb. 27, 1972, Crawford, 56, died of a heart attack.

That summer at Longacres with a new trainer, Turbulator recorded his last stakes victory, repeating in the Washington Championship. But he was 7 years old and not quite the same. He completed his career in 1974 with 21 lifetime wins in 47 official starts and earnings of $102,457.

Afterward, he became the only nonhuman in the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Washington Racing Hall of Fame. Prominent sculptor Deborah Copenhaver fashioned his bust in bronze. Originally located in the Playfair paddock, the bust now occupies a prominent spot in the Hall of Fame gallery at Emerald Downs.

What if he’d really been given a chance at racing’s big leagues? Larry Pierce thinks he belonged. without a doubt. So does Jon White, the Lewis and Clark High School grad with a long career as a nationally known racing journalist and broadcaster.

I’m now in my 80s and, perhaps, running out of words. Echoes of those already written will fade away with time. And Playfair is long gone. But Turbulator? If you were there or wish you had been, for real or in your imagination, you’ll remember him forever.

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