Remembering Seattle Slew 40 years after his Triple Crown

He is buried in a leafy courtyard on a farm in Lexington, Ky., beneath a bed of pachysandra and the bronze statue of a strapping horse that bears his name. It's a worthy resting place for Seattle Slew, a champion thoroughbred who, 40 years ago, made history.

He won the Triple Crown without ever having lost a race. When Seattle Slew ran the table in 1977, having captured the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, he was 9-for-9 and batting 1.000. In that, he stands alone.

This week, a bouquet of 40 daisies adorned his grave, a nod to his stirring victory at Pimlico that May. (Black-eyed Susans are not yet in bloom.)

"I can still see him racing down the backstretch, head to head with Cormorant," said Mickey Taylor, 72, one of Seattle Slew's owners. "Then [jockey Jean] Cruguet changed leads and Slew was like a fresh horse, going past Cormorant like he was standing still."

It was nothing Slew hadn't done before. The winner's circle was all he knew, a bully pulpit for the big bay colt first trained in Maryland. Fast and furious, he had to lead the pack and seemed to will himself to the front each time out. Woe to those who took him on. In the Kentucky Derby, he outran For The Moment down the stretch. Afterward, that horse's jockey, Angel Cordero, said something that stuck with Billy Turner, Slew's trainer.

Midway through the race, Slew's head bobbed up beside Cordero's boot. At that moment, the jockey said, "I looked around and saw that [Slew] wasn't looking at my horse — he was looking at me."

That gave Turner goosebumps.

"It scared me," he said. "I worried Slew might grab a rider by the leg and pull him off his horse. He was fiercely competitive, an absolute dominant horse and just ruthless to run with. Others were horrified of him."

Looking into the colt's eyes, Turner said, "you got the feeling he knew more than you did."

Who's to argue?

"He was top dog. Slew knew he was superior to everyone else," Taylor said. "If he'd been human, he'd have been Muhammad Ali. Neither took any crap from anyone."

Except, perhaps, from their trainers.

"Slew was the kind of horse who would run himself to death," Turner said. "My job was to get him under control, so he wouldn't destroy himself."

Bought on the cheap ($17,500) at public auction, Seattle Slew landed in Maryland to be put through his paces. At Andor Farm in Monkton, Turner worked with the gangly thoroughbred for seven months. Clumsy early on and with a right front foot that poked outward, he was called "Baby Huey" after a clownish cartoon duckling of the 1950s.

"We rode him across the countryside," said Turner, 77, a onetime steeplechase jockey who competed in two Maryland Hunt Cups. "He had so much energy that all he wanted was to run. He didn't care about anything else."

Seattle Slew parlayed his humble beginnings into a stellar career, on the track and off. He won 14 of 17 races and earned more than $1.2 million. He is the lone Triple Crown winner to defeat another, having beaten Affirmed by three lengths in the 1978 Marlboro Cup.

Slew followed through at stud, siring more than 110 stakes winners, among them Swale, the 1984 Derby and Belmont winner; A.P. Indy (1992 Belmont); and Slew o' Gold, the 1983 U.S. 3-year-old male champion. Seattle Slew's blood runs deep. Thirteen of the 20 starters in this year's Derby — including the winner, Always Dreaming — share his roots.

More than four decades later, Taylor recalled his shock watching a 2-year-old Slew breeze out of the gate for the first time, in 1976, at Belmont Park.

"He went a half-mile in 43 seconds," Taylor said. "Then the phone rang; it was the track clocker, a guy named Jules. He said, 'I'm not going to write [that number] down because people will think I'm crazy.' "

But Slew was real. He ran his first three races within 26 days, climaxed by a stunning victory in the Champagne Stakes (1:34-2/5), then the fastest mile ever run by a 2-year-old.

"I remember Slew coming back to the paddock after winning that day — dancing and snorting and all psyched up, with his eyes popping all over the place. He looked like the monster he'll always be, in my mind," said Jim Hill, 79, another of the horse's owners. "That's a picture I'll take with me to my grave."

Come the Kentucky Derby, Slew won by 1-3/4 lengths despite an awful start.

"I thought he got held held up in the gate," Taylor said. Afterward, the horse was clearly agitated: "Cooling him out, he was like an orangutan, all ticked off, like someone had tried to stop him from running."

Two weeks later, he took the Preakness by 1-1/2 lengths and "Slewmania" swept the country. Secretariat had won the Triple Crown in 1973, ending a 25-year drought; could it happen again, so soon?

Not everyone was enamored with the colt. At the Derby, ABC-TV commentator Howard Cosell had asked his colleague, Eddie Arcaro, if Seattle Slew was a great horse, and the Hall of Fame jockey had been critical. At Pimlico, Cosell approached Slew's trainer in a tizzy.

"Cosell said, 'Billy, our viewers want us to get rid of Arcaro for what he said about your horse, when all I wanted was to stir up interest, like at a prize fight,'" Turner recalled. "I said, 'Howard, you can criticize an owner or a jockey, but not a horse, because people love a horse.' Then I went on TV and said that Arcaro could say what he did because of his success as a rider. Then Cosell straightened his toupee, and everything was fine."

And Slew? He won the Belmont by four lengths on a heavy track, the 10th horse to capture the Triple Crown. When the hubbub died down, Turner crept off to a corner and wept.

"I'd set the bar so high for that horse that if he hadn't won it all, then I hadn't done my job," he said. "Slew was brilliant, and he had more class than all of the people around him put together."

Seattle Slew died on May 7, 2002, on the 25th anniversary of his Kentucky Derby win. Taylor was with him at the end.

"In the twilight of his years, we got a dog, a black Labrador named Chet, who happened to have been born in the same stall as Slew, and they loved each other," Taylor said. "When we entered the barn where Slew was laying, he raised up on his sternum and Chet licked his face three or four times. Then Slew licked Chet, lay back down and passed away."

He was buried whole, his head nestled on a favorite blanket and flanked by a bouquet of roses.

"I've been around a lot of horses, but none who handled himself like that one," Taylor said. "He was regal. When he stood at stud at Three Chimneys Farm [in Kentucky], he'd stare down other horses. When [1997 Derby and Preakness winner] Silver Charm arrived, he started carrying on and raising hell until they brought Slew out. Silver Charm took one look at that Slew eye, backed up in his stall and put his head down.

"He didn't do it out of anger," Taylor said. "It was, like, 'I've got my space and don't screw with me.'"

It was, for Seattle Slew, the countenance of a champion.

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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