March 8, 2010

Remembering ... Seattle Slew

The first time I ever laid eyes on Seattle Slew was October 16, 1976. It was the day of the Champagne Stakes. The Champagne was the most important juvenile race in the country in those days, and everyone was buzzing about the flashy black colt who had run away with a maiden and an allowance in his first two starts. I remember reading the form that afternoon from the front row of our grandstand seats, and thinking that For The Moment is really a nice two-year-old. This Seattle Slew character would have to be awfully good to handle him in only his third start. Following the Seattle Slew pre-race war dance, the race went pretty much as planned with the unbeaten Slew on the lead and For the Moment in close pursuit. As they straightened out, For the Moment threw his haymaker. Problem was it made absolutely no impact on the big, impressive colt. Seattle Slew commenced a runaway that I had never seen before in such a young horse. It was breathtaking. In a period of four weeks he had gone from an unraced, inexpensive juvenile to an undefeated champion and a clear favorite for next Spring’s Kentucky Derby. Where had he come from?

Foaled in Lexington, Seattle Slew was a son of the talented, but unproven combination of Bold Reasoning and My Charmer. Taken to the Lexington auction conducted by Fasig-Tipton Company in July, Seattle Slew was bought for a bargain basement price of $17,500 by Mickey Taylor, a former lumberman from Washington, his wife Karen, and partner, Dr. Jim Hill. It was Hill who had recommended the purchase to the Taylors. Slew was sent to the Turners, first to Paula who broke the big youngster and then on to husband Billy to take over the race training.

His three-year-old season began much the way his juvenile season ended. Billy Turner waited patiently to begin his season until March 9, when he won an allowance race by nine lengths at Hialeah in track record time for seven furlongs. A few weeks later, Seattle Slew won the Flamingo Stakes by four lengths in the third fastest time in stakes history. Slew then headed back north for the Wood Memorial where he scored another easy victory in his final prep for the Kentucky Derby.

The 1977 Triple Crown would be all about Slew. The only real drama was in the first few seconds of the Kentucky Derby, when the heavy favorite was sideswiped coming out of the gate and got a way slowly. It proved no issue for the great horse. Within a quarter mile, he joined For the Moment on the lead and the drama of the Triple Crown was all but over. He crossed the wire first in the Derby over Run Dusty Run, and first in the Preakness over Iron Constitution. Neither margin was big, but it was clear that Slew was much the best. When he crossed the finish line in the Belmont Stakes four lengths ahead of Run Dusty Run, he became the tenth horse ever to win the Triple Crown and the first to do so undefeated. To this day, Seattle Slew is the only horse ever to win the Crown unbeaten. Unfortunately, in the weeks following the Belmont, The Taylors insisted that Slew be shipped to the West Coast to run in Hollywood Park’s Swaps Stakes. It was an ill conceived plan, and one that trainer Billy Turner wanted no part of. The owners won out and it resulted in Slew’s only black mark, as he was not himself in running a distant fourth to the razor sharp J.O. Tobin. This ended the relationship between the Taylors and Turner. It also ended Seattle Slew’s sophomore season, but Slew would be back.

Perhaps Seattle Slew’s greatest attribute was an amazing spirit that so few horses possess the way he did. It was never more apparent than in 1978, when he fought off a life-threatening collapsed left jugular vein at the beginning of the year, and made it successfully back to the races by May. Veterinarians were concerned for his life and had suggested that he would never race again, but Seattle Slew was simply a different kind of horse than the doctors were familiar with. During that four-year-old campaign, Slew also overcame a suspensory ligament injury, a filled ankle, and several other hurdles that would send any other horse off to retirement. Instead Slew emerged once again as a champion under the guidance of new trainer Doug Peterson and produced some of the greatest performances in his career.

After rounding back into top form, despite his ailments, Slew was ready to tackle the new hotshot in racing. Affirmed had become the new toast of racing with his Triple Crown heroics. I remember thinking youth would be served in the Marlboro Cup and surely Slew would succumb to his young challenger. I have never been so wrong. Slew dispatched Affirmed with disdainful ease in the first ever match up of Triple Crown winners. A few weeks later he won the Woodward in even easier fashion, this time he dispatched top handicap horse Exceller. There was no doubt that Seattle Slew was the greatest horse in the world after those performances. In the Jockey Club he would face his two biggest rivals again. It would prove to be the greatest challenge of his career. Here is what I wrote about the race in a previous piece:

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.
Defeated, but still the champion, Slew went out in style. After his incredible effort in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, his connections found a fitting stakes race to make his farewell. On November 11, 1978, Seattle Slew made his final start a winning one with an easy score in the Stuyvesant Handicap at Aqueduct Race Track. It was vintage Slew, as he sprinted to the lead and rolled around the track. The appreciative crowd knew it was his swan song and they roared in approval for their hero. In 17 races, Seattle Slew won easily 14 times, ran 2nd twice in photo finishes, and was only once clearly beaten. He won eclipse awards in each of his three seasons of racing, and he was quickly ushered into Racing’s Hall of Fame after retirement. Slew was further honored by being named as one of the top ten horses in American racing history by various outlets. On my all-time list, Seattle Slew ranked #8 of the greatest of the greats.

Often the very greatest horses can not reproduce anything close to themselves. Seattle Slew was clearly an exception to this rule. A sire of well over a hundred stakes winners, Slew also became a champion Broodmare sire. Slew was so successful at stud that I have little doubt that he proved himself to be the greatest combination of runner and sire of modern American racing. He was the strongest sire of the powerful Bold Ruler line and still today, his descendants carry on the great Seattle Slew line. A very short list of champion sons or daughters sired by Slew include: A.P. Indy, Landaluce, Slew O’ Gold, Swale, and Vindication.

Seattle Slew is arguably the most unforgettable horse of my lifetime. When you consider the talent he displayed throughout his career, the heart and tenacity he displayed in his toughest races, the way he overcame physical setbacks, the flare he showed in winning race after race and the prodigious amount of top horses he produced. Seattle Slew passed in his sleep at the age of 28 on May 7, 1999. Ever the showman, Slew died on the 25th anniversary of his win in the Kentucky Derby. Slew was unforgettable the first time I saw him in the Champagne and he only got better. I remember you Seattle Slew.

19 comments:

Jennifer said...

Beautiful article. :)

LDP said...

Jennifer, I agree, that is all that needs to be said.

Anonymous said...

the facts seem fuzzy ..you said you were reading the Form when Slew was 2 years old..How old were you than...6 ? seems a little exaggerated to me.

Brian Zipse said...

Fuzzy huh? LOL

I was 7 and had been reading the form for a few years.

Anonymous said...

a few years...my apologies...you must be one smart dude.

Filiberto said...

Great Article !!!

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you Jennifer, LDP, and Filiberto.

Anonymous...lol, it is easy when you learn to read on the form. My daughter is already a Rachel fan. She will be two in July.

Sarah Grice said...

another great article!!!

william said...

not influencing your daughter are you brian?..great article bringing back some nice memories..i was in the stands that day when he won the belmont stakes and got an autograph from jockey jean cruguet in the program....my high school intramural hockey team were called the slew because of him...have a program from the famous meeting between the slew and affirmed..thanks

Steve Zorn said...

Bill Turner, the only surviving Triple Crown-winning trainer, with Slew, is still around, and still not in the Hall of Fame, where he should be. It would honor Slew's memory to convince the Hall nominating committee to at least put Bill on the ballot this year.

tjreyn01 said...

I mentioned the other night that he was 1 or 2 with Secretariat for me...after reading and reliving his moments and all the things he fought through with injuries and his success at stud...I think he may be my #1. The true black stallion. Unfortunately, I remember vividly that day in 2002 when I found out he had passed and when it set in that I would never see him in person.

Ernie said...

thx for honoring the mighty

he made me a lifer

Kerry said...

Fantastic read Mr. Zipse, and in fact is a delightful and accurate case study of a horse that obviously held a very high Emotional Conformation and P-Type.

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you for the kind words everyone!

Steve, I just posted this piece on the Elect Billy Turner to the Horse Racing Hall of Fame page on Facebook ... http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/group.php?gid=291429306821&ref=ts This is a movement I wholeheartedly support.

railrunner said...

Great peice, I wasn't alive when he raced but I've always considered him one of the greatest of all time. Sometimes he seems to get lost in the shuffle, some people seem to think becuase he was always on or near the lead that he wasn't a great versatile runner, or because he rarely won by huge margins that he was running against inferior horses.
His record speaks for itself, and you did a great job of bringing his memory back.

joani said...

Finally a chance to catch up on the items on which I had a "must read" reminder. This was at the top. Thanks for a wonderful read.

Stardusty~ said...

Super article, thanks. We have Seattle Slews, my daughter bred two mares. Nigel Pullen (UK)did the genetics on sire and mare we have, said we had what could recreate Seattle Slew according to his accounts. Per his email, we bred them. A filly was produced and she looks a lot like Slew. Her JC name is Slewsdoubletrouble. We are stoked, she is wonderful. Again, thank you for the article. My daughter will love to read it. ; )

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Anonymous said...

The great Slew was brilliantly fast. I so loved his catch-me-if-you-can style of running. That's all the versatility he needed. Run with him early and you lose (Affirmed and his rabbit). He was simply the most charismatic and competitive horse I have ever seen. His will to win was remarkable. You couldn't take your eyes off him. I just loved watching him war dance sideways to the gate...and then come flying from it. (The horse that was brought out west to run in the 1 1/4 mile Swaps Stakes three weeks after the Belmont simply was NOT Slew. Dreadful management decision.) And I loved flying to Kentucky to visit him often over the years. He was great and he knew it...on and off the track. He was a remakably intelligent being...one could just tell...and those amber eyes! I would not have missed seeing him for the world.
Jon