By the time Seattle Slew arrived at Pimlico for the 102nd Preakness on May 21, 1977, the fairy tale was one-third told.
A modest $17,500 purchase as a yearling, Seattle Slew had starred in the rags-to-riches story of winning the Kentucky Derby. His owners -- two fun-loving couples in their 30s dubbed the "Slew Crew" -- were the darlings of American racing.
The nation's sports fans watched eagerly as Seattle Slew -- this dark-brown blaze of speed so awkward as a baby that his handlers called him "Baby Huey" after the clumsy comic-strip character -- tried to do what no horse had ever done: win the Triple Crown without having lost a race.
"One of the wonderful aspects of thoroughbred racing is the Cinderella story," said Dan Rosenberg, general manager of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., where Seattle Slew, 23, stands as one of North America's top stallions. "And Seattle Slew epitomizes the Cinderella story -- the ugly duckling who turns into a swan, if you'll allow me to mix my metaphors."
But as with most fairy tales, the story has dark chapters.
Seattle Slew's popular trainer, Billy Turner, was fired five months after winning the Triple Crown. He drank so much vodka starting first thing every morning, the horse's owners say, that he forgot which horses he had trained the day before.
Then the owners fired the jockey, Jean Cruguet. And finally, the owners, despite a deep friendship during the greatest moments of their lives, declared war and assaulted one another with a barrage of lawsuits. Today, they don't even speak.
"That horse, he just made so much money," said Turner, who trained in Maryland in much of the 1990s. "It became such a big thing that it consumed everybody involved."
And it began so innocently.
Horse owners since the early 1970s, Karen Taylor was a former flight attendant, and her husband, Mickey Taylor, a lumberman. They lived in eastern Washington state.
Their dear friend, Dr. Jim Hill, a veterinarian, recommended that they buy Seattle Slew, a son of Bold Reasoning out of the mare My Charmer, at a 1975 yearling auction in Lexington, Ky. Hill and his wife, Sally, had met the Taylors through the horse business. In partnership, they bought 13 prospects, including the one Hill especially liked, Seattle Slew. He cost $17,500.
Two years later, as Seattle Slew emerged as one of the great thoroughbreds of all time, Karen Taylor grew fond of saying: "I live in a mobile home, and I drive a pickup truck. But I've got a hell of a horse."
They sent the colt to Turner, another friend and former steeplechase rider who had trained horses seasonally in Maryland since the early 1960s. Based at Belmont Park in the mid-1970s, Turner accepted Seattle Slew and another Taylor-Hill purchase and sent them to Andor Farm in Monkton, where his wife at the time, Paula, taught yearlings to be ridden.
"He had the size. He had the bone. He was what you'd call a floppy colt," Turner said. "That's one of the reasons he didn't bring more money at the sales, because he just wasn't an eye-catcher."
But he learned quickly on the farm and adapted well at the racetrack. Turner began training him with an easygoing, older filly.
"One morning he went off with the filly for about a sixteenth of a mile," Turner said, "and all of a sudden he realized he was in a competitive situation, and he was gone -- in spite of the rider and everything.
"That's all I had to see. The stride was there. The determination was something I had never seen before."
Seattle Slew raced only three times as a 2-year-old, winning all three, including the one-mile Champagne Stakes at Belmont. He ran that race in 1 minute, 34 2/5 seconds, the fastest mile ever for a 2-year-old.
"After he won the Champagne, I knew it in my bones that this horse could win the Triple Crown," Turner says. "The only thing that would stop him was if he didn't show up."
Turner's bones didn't lie.
Later, summarizing Seattle Slew's 3-year-old season, Joe Hirsch the Daily Racing Form wrote: "Every time he ran he was an odds-on favorite, and the response to his presence on the racetrack, either for a morning workout or a major race, was electric. 'Slewmania' was a virulent and widespread condition."
Turner scheduled just three races leading up to the Kentucky Derby. In the first, an allowance race at Hialeah Park, Seattle Slew set a seven-furlong track record of 1: 20 3/5. He won the Flamingo Stakes by four lengths and the Wood Memorial Stakes by 3 1/4 .
Then the criticism of Turner's training methods began. Instead of preparing Seattle Slew for the Kentucky Derby and hoping for the best in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Turner approached the three races as a package.
He was a strong-minded 37-year-old not afraid to defy tradition. The traditionalists said he was babying his colt, walking him up to the greatest challenge of his life.
"I remember Billy saying one time after the Champagne that this horse is so talented all we need to do is keep him in one piece," Jim Hill said, "And he said in order to do that, we've got to limit the number of times his feet hit the ground, because he did it so fast and so hard.
"So Billy used the races as works and tried not to do too much in between."
Turner said he sent Seattle Slew on only 19 works -- breezes at nearly full speed -- from the beginning through the Triple Crown.
"It defied all the principles of training that anybody had ever seen," Turner said. "But I was fortunate in that Slew came along a year after Ruffian."
The Maryland-owned filly was undefeated until she broke down in a match race with Derby winner Foolish Pleasure in 1975.
"I had watched every move [trainer] Frank Whiteley made with Ruffian," Turner said. "And he did as little as he could possibly get by with and still get her fit enough to run. That gave me the confidence to do what I did."
But when the starting gate opened on May 7, 1977, for the 103rd Kentucky Derby, Turner's daring training schedule nearly bit the dust. In a stampeding field of 15, Seattle Slew, the 1-2 favorite, broke last.
Turner watched the race on TV in a Churchill Downs bar.
"I thought, 'Jiminy Christmas, here I'm going to win a Triple Crown and I can't even get out of the gate for the Derby,' " he said.
Mickey Taylor recalled: "I thought we were cooked."
So did Cruguet, the jockey. He urged Seattle Slew as if the race were nearly over -- which it nearly was.
"It was do or die," Cruguet said. "It was easy to decide for me: We had to go."
Seattle Slew bulled through horses "like some equine Bronko Nagurski," Hirsch wrote. Incredibly, as the horses passed the finish line for the first time, Seattle Slew had not only made up ground, but he also had gained a slight lead. He stretched it to three lengths before finally winning by 1 3/4 .
"There was relief after the Derby," Mickey Taylor said. "The dream was coming true. We had the first one out of the way."
But a fresh horse with speed, Cormorant, awaited in the Preakness. His confident connections wore T-shirts that read: "Seattle Who?"
They found out.
Cormorant, the second choice at 4-1, burst out of the No. 1 post into the lead. Seattle Slew, 2-5, ran with him out of the No. 8. But Seattle Slew pulled away around the far turn, recording the fastest opening Preakness mile up to that point, 1: 34 4/5. He won by 1 1/2 lengths. Cormorant wilted to fourth.
And then, before the Belmont on June 11, Turner worked Seattle Slew one mile, then six furlongs, then three furlongs. In the words of Hirsch: "The Horse of the Hour, trained to the minute, was half past ready."
Again bet to 2-5, Seattle Slew led at every call. He won by four lengths. He became the 10th winner of the Triple Crown -- and the only undefeated one.
The celebrations were on. But the euphoria did not last.
Instead of giving Seattle Slew a well-earned rest, the "Slew Crew" decided to send him to California to race July 3 in the Swaps Stakes. After winning his first nine races, he finished fourth, 16 lengths behind the winner.
Turner told reporters he hadn't wanted to run Seattle Slew in the Swaps. His owners say to this day that that's not true. And, they say, Turner's drinking was not only destroying him, but also putting Seattle Slew at risk. They fired him.
"If you had an investment worth, whatever, $10 million, would you let the CEO be a very severe alcoholic?" Sally Hill said. "Jim told him, 'Billy, if you get some help, we'll pay you to get dried out. You can train the horse by phone. Your job is secure.'
"His answer was the standard: 'I don't have a problem.' "
Turner says now: "The thing is, I drank from the time I was a jumping rider. I was a heavy drinker. That was my way of life.
"It took a lot to convince me that I could stop drinking. I guess it caught up with me about 10 years later."
He joined Alcoholics Anonymous in Laurel, "where they had about 30 meetings a week," he said. "I was going every day, sometimes twice a day. All of a sudden the bell rang: 'I could live another way.' Once I figured that out, drinking has never entered my mind."
Although Turner straightened out his life, Seattle Slew nearly lost his. He nearly died from a blood disorder early in his 4-year-old season.
But he recovered and distinguished himself in his final racing year. In the first meeting ever between Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew (1977) defeated Affirmed (1978) in the Marlboro Cup in the fall of 1978.
But that year the owners fired Cruguet, the jockey, for criticizing Seattle Slew's condition. And later Turner sued the owners over breeding rights to Seattle Slew, who proved to be as accomplished in the breeding shed as on the racetrack.
"Hardly ever does a horse have this kind of impact on racing and on breeding," said Rosenberg, of Three Chimneys Farm. "Think of the other Triple Crown winners. How many of them had the impact in breeding that Seattle Slew has had? None have.
"Not only has Seattle Slew been a sire of champions, but he's a sire of sires and a leading broodmare sire. To me, that says this is one of a handful of horses that does impact the breed."
And he is one of a handful of stallions whose stud fee is $100,000.
But as his reputation as a sire grew, so did animosity between the Taylors and Hills. They say little about it publicly, but they fought bitterly in court until, in the end, the Hills accepted money, the Taylors kept the horses (including their part of Seattle Slew), and the partnership and friendship were dissolved.
"But we don't consider that part of the Seattle Slew story," said Jim Hill.
"No," agreed his wife, Sally. "It was too wonderful a ride I think as the years go by you realize how glorious he was. I appreciate him more every year. I appreciate him because in spite of the good ones afterward we had sired by him, we were blessed -- my gosh we were blessed -- we never had one quite like him again. No one has."
Date: May 7, 1977
PP, Horse, W, P, S
4, Seattle Slew, 3.00, 2.80, 2.80
8, Run Dusty Run, --, 3.40, 3.20
1, Sanhedrin, --, --, 4.60
Margin: 1 3/4 lengths
Date: May 21, 1977
PP, Horse, W, P, S
8, Seattle Slew, 2.80, 2.80, 2.20
7, Iron Constitution, --, 12.20, 5.00
9, Run Dusty Run, --, --, 2.80
Margin: 1 1/2 lengths
Date: June 11, 1977
PP, Horse, W, P, S
5, Seattle Slew, 2.80, 2.60, 2.20
1, Run Dusty Run, --, 3.20, 2.40
6, Sanhedrin, --, --, 2.60
Margin: 4 lengths
Triple Crown winners
Horse, Jockey, Year
Sir Barton, J. Loftus, 1919
Gallant Fox, E. Sande, 1930
Omaha, W. Saunders, 1935
War Admiral, C. Kurtsinger, 1937
Whirlaway, E. Arcaro, 1941
Count Fleet, J. Longden, 1943
Assault, W. Mehrtens, 1946
Citation, E. Arcaro, 1948
Secretariat, R. Turcotte, 1973
Seattle Slew, J. Cruguet, 1977
Affirmed, S. Cauthen, 1978
Seattle Slew's race record
Starts: 17 Wins: 14 Seconds: 2 Thirds: 0 Fourth: 1 Earnings: $1,208,726
1976 champion 2-year-old colt or gelding
1977 champion 3-year-old colt or gelding
1977 Horse of the Year
1978 champion best older horse or gelding
Date, Track, Race, Distance, Odds, Fin., Time, Margin
Sept. 20, Belmont, maiden, 6 furlongs, 2-1, 1st, 1:10, 1/5 5 lengths
Oct. 5, Belmont, allowance, 7 furlongs, 2-1, 1st, 1:22, 3 1/2 lengths
Oct. 16, Belmont, Champagne Stakes, 1 mile, 6-5, 1st, 1:34, 2/5 9 3/4 lengths
March 9, Hialeah, allowance, 7 furlongs, 1-10, 1st, 1:20, 3/5 9 lengths
March 26, Hialeah, Flamingo Stakes, 1 1/8 miles, 1-5, 1st, 1:47, 2/5 4 lengths
April 23, Aqueduct, Wood Memorial Stakes, 1 1/8 miles, 1-10, 1st, 1:49, 3/5 3 1/4 lengths
May 7, Churchill Downs, Kentucky Derby, 1 1/4 miles, 1-2, 1st, 2:02, 1/5 1 3/4 lengths
May 21, Pimlico, Preakness, 1 3/16 miles, 2-5, 1st, 1:54, 2/5 1 1/2 lengths
June 11, Belmont, Belmont Stakes, 1 1/2 miles, 2-5, 1st, 2:29 3/5 4 lengths
July 3, Hollywood, Swaps Stakes, 1 1/4 miles, 1-5, 4th, 1:58, 3/5 16 lengths
May 14, Aqueduct, allowance, 7 furlongs, 1-10, 1st, 1:22, 4/5 8 1/4 lengths
Aug. 12, Saratoga, allowance, 7 furlongs, 1-10, 1st, 1:21, 3/5 6 lengths
Sept. 5, Meadowlands, Paterson Handicap, 1 1/8 miles, 1-5, 2nd, 1:48, neck
Sept. 16, Belmont, Marlboro Cup, 1 1/8 miles, 2-1, 1st, 1:45, 4/5 3 lengths
Sept. 30, Belmont, Woodward Stakes, 1 1/4 miles, 3-10, 1st, 2:00, 4 lengths
Oct. 14, Belmont, Jockey Club Gold Cup, 1 1/2 miles, 3-5, 2nd, 2:27, 1/5 nose
Nov. 11, Aqueduct, Stuyvesant Handicap, 1 1/8 miles, 1-10, 1st, 1:47, 2/5 3 1/4 lengths
Pub Date: 5/11/97