August 20, 2009

The Greatest Loss There Ever Was

Seattle Slew was a winner. In 17 races, he won 14 times. The Slew won racing’s greatest achievement, the Triple Crown. He also won the hearts of millions of devoted fans. These wins are not the topic of the day, but rather one of his losses. Seattle Slew’s performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup displayed everything you could ever ask of a racehorse. I was lucky enough to be in the stands at Belmont Park that October day and I will forever remember the greatest loss there ever was.

In the Fall of 1978, Seattle Slew vindicated his shocking upset loss to Dr. Patches at the Meadowlands by proving that he was once again the best horse in the world with his easy wins in the Marlboro Cup and the Woodward Stakes over future Hall of Fame horses. In the Marlboro, Slew maintained an easy lead over the reigning Triple Crown champion, Affirmed, the entire race. The great 3-year-old simply could not put a dent into Seattle Slew’s working margin. Slew accelerated in the stretch to win by three lengths in the first ever match-up of Triple Crown winners. Final time was a great 1:45 and 4. In the 1 ¼ mile Woodward, it was Exceller’s chance to watch Seattle Slew’s tail. Slew rolled that day as he repelled Exceller’s advances with ease in tallying by four lengths.

It was on to the Jockey Club and there were some changes in store for Slew. This time both Affirmed and Exceller would challenge him and at a distance, 1 ½ miles, that both horses had proven to excel (no pun intended). To make things even more difficult, Harbor View Farm entered a rabbit into the mix. A decent handicap horse named Life’s Hope, who in the JCGC would run as fast as he could for as far as he could, was entered only to bolster the chances of their big horse, Affirmed. If you thought things were stacked against Seattle Slew before the race, it would only get worse. First Slew broke through the starting gate expending precious energy. Then one of the strangest things that I have ever seen in a big race happened. Affirmed broke like a shot and was right in the middle of what could only be called a suicidal speed dual (It was explained after the race that Affirmed‘s saddle slipped and Steve Cauthen had lost control of the great 3-year-old). Seattle Slew had to not only deal with the rabbit, but also the horse that the rabbit was designed to help. Fractions of :22 and 3, :45 and 1, and 1:09 and 2 were amazingly carved out of the Belmont dirt. Remember this was a 1 ½ mile test of endurance. Almost immediately the other three horses, including Exceller were 20 or more lengths behind. First Life’s Hope fell away and then Affirmed soon followed. Slew had sent his rivals on the front packing. But how could he possibly survive this blistering pace himself?

He couldn’t. Exceller, with Bill Shoemaker aboard was gobbling up chunks of ground on the rail at an alarming rate. It looked like he could call his own margin of victory over the tiring Slew. But then something happened. Seattle Slew, the champion that he was, fought back. It still gives me goose bumps to think about. Seattle Slew and Angel Cordero were coming back at him…Wow! Exceller, who had taken almost a full length lead was now desperate to hold of the valiant Slew. The wire came too soon and Exceller had held on to win by a nose.

In defeat, I believe Seattle Slew had run his greatest race. He would have only one more start after that in winning the Stuyvesant Stakes in easy fashion. But it was the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup where you showed us all what you really had, thank you Seattle Slew, for running the greatest loss there ever was.

6 comments:

Abitaamber said...

You are remiss to mention Exceller without putting in a plug for this very important group:

http://excellerfund.org/

Brian Zipse said...

Well done Abitaamber! The Exceller Fund does great work and Exceller, the horse, will certainly be the subject of another blog.

Ernie said...

That is the greatest single effort I've ever seen.

Not long ago I visited Three Chimneys, and I just stood at his Memorial talking about that race. Will post the video at some point---but you know all this already.

Chills. If I had the power, I'd re-name the Jockey Club Gold Cup the Seattle Slew.

Great stuff, Brian. You're going at a Hedevarian clip--don't let the rabbits get you!!

Celeste said...

That race does give goosebumps. This is the kind of stuff I missed by not paying attention back then. Thank you for shedding more light on the years I was too busy raising a family.

Brian Zipse said...

Better late than never Celeste!

Ernie, I hope I keep going like the good Doctor!

Heather said...

Seattle Slew was before my time (for most of his career) but i love him!!! anytime i watched replays of his races, i get goosebumps and reading about this particular race does the same. very nicely described, brian!