A True Friend
June 1, 2004
by Sandy Shaw
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Taylor,
You may not quite remember me and as such I have attached a photograph taken in 1981 which may refresh your memory. My name is Andrew Shaw, known to all my friends as 'Sandy' Shaw and I had the privilege of looking after Slew during 1980 and 1981. Ever since his death, I have been searching around for an e-mail address in order to express my sincere condolences in the aftermath of your loss. Quite simply, he was the most extraordinary horse I have ever had anything to do with and am extremely proud to have been associated with him. I have been reduced to tears whilst reading some of the beautiful letters and articles which have been written about him both by yourselves and others. As such I would like to add my own story if I may.
The first time I ever heard of Slew was back in May 1977, when he won the Kentucky Derby. I can remember exactly where I was sitting at home in my parents kitchen back in Ireland when the 11am news came on the radio. After the main stories were over, the news reader said that the Kentucky Derby had been won the previous day by a cheaply bought horse with a crooked leg. For whatever reason, the story grabbed my attention immediately, probably because I am a sucker for true 'rags to riches' stories (Smarty Jones reminds me so much of Slew for the same reasons). Of course there was no Internet in those days and it was always difficult to keep in touch with what was happening Stateside on the horse racing front. However, I made sure to tune in to that same 11am Sunday news bulletin on the days after the Preakness and the Belmont. Suddenly I became wrapped up in it all. For me though, the greatest day was when he came up against Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup. The build up reminded me of the Muhummad Ali/George Foreman fight. The young kid on the block against the 'once great' champion. A foregone conclusion in most people's eyes. The result was the same in both instances but not what the majority expected. That was the day that proved beyond all doubt who was 'The Greatest'. Unfortunately for me, my 11am news bulletin let me down that morning and no mention was made of the race. The well known and only racing publication at the time 'The Sporting Life' wasn't printed on a Sunday and therefore I had no way of knowing the outcome. I could not wait another day and so headed into town and toured the shops reading the sports section in every paper I could find to see if the result could be found. I had just about given up hope when a gentleman beside me picked up a newspaper and as he was reading through it, the back page caught my eye (not the sports section) because of the small headline 'Slew wins battle of Triple Crown heroes'. I walked home 10 foot tall that morning and reflected on how a horse whom I had never seen could have such a hold on me.
Time rolled on and I ended up being fortunate enough to be selected for the world renown Irish National Stud course in 1980 along with 19 other Students from all over the world. When we had completed the course, we had a number of options in order to further our education. Kentucky was a popular choice with many of us for obvious reasons. It had become the centre of the world's bloodstock breeding industry. Many of the Kentucky farms would be in contact with Michael Osborne who was the manager of the Irish National Stud at the time looking for lads to work out there. I desperately wanted to get out there and fulfill an ambition, to some day see and maybe even touch Seattle Slew. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that there was a position available for a Stallion Groom at Spendthrift Farm. Mr. Osborne recommended me to John Williams and I was thrilled. I was getting closer to my goal and couldn't wait. On November 5th, 1980, myself and my friend Robert Clemenger from Australia flew out to Kentucky together. A dream was about to be realised.
On arrival in Kentucky, we were brought to Spendthrift and given a tour of the farm. To be honest, there was only one place I wanted to see and that was the Stallion Barn. Everything else could wait. I remember well the shiver down my spine as I arrived at the 'Nashua Motel' as it was known. As it happened, the very first stall we came to was that of Slew. I looked inside and his eyes met mine. It felt so strange and yet so natural. Just like when you meet someone whom you haven't seen for years and when you do eventually meet, it's as though you had never been apart. The first coincidence I noticed was the plaque outside his stall, 'November 30th, Seattle Slew Day'. My birthday! That sealed it for me. Brothers in Arms! During this time of course, I was so happy just to have the opportunity of working in the same barn as Slew. Little did I know how things would soon change!
In the Stallion Barn, I got the job of Relief Man. Whenever a Groom was on his day off, I 'did' his horses for him. I made sure that my day off didn't coincide with that of Slew's groom Antoine! That first morning was one for which I couldn't wait. I was up early and arrived outside his stall before anyone else had arrived at work. We got on famously and that first day ended all too quickly. I would have to wait another week before I got the chance to look after him again. The first thing that struck me about Slew was that he was quite a plain horse, nothing flashy. However, when you stood back and took a proper look, I could see what you must have seen in him when you bought him. A massive hind quarter and the most powerful shoulders I have ever seen. More importantly, he had the legs to carry them with that tremendous bone. His heart was obviously in equal proportion.
When rumours started to spread that Antoine was leaving Spendthrift, I never thought for one second that I would be asked to take over his string. I was only after arriving and I knew that there were others who had been there for longer than I who would be first in line. There were a number of lads who were hoping to be offered the job. I simply hoped that I wouldn't be transferred to another barn. I will never forget the day. Antoine had left and I was put in temporary charge. A couple of weeks later as I was taking Slew out to his paddock one frosty morning, someone called me. It was John Williams, the Farm Manager. He was chatting with Ernie Fraiser, the Stallion Manager. I froze for a moment. The first thing that came into my head was that I hadn't picked out Slew's feet properly or that there was straw in his tail. I turned back half waiting for a rollocking of some sort. \"Yes Mr. Williams\", I said. \"Sandy\", he said, we've been watching you over these past couple of weeks and have been very impressed with the way you have handled the stallions. We have decided therefore to give you sole responsibility for The Slew String\". I was stunned. Thrilled. Excited. I wanted to ring my parents straight away. They always knew of my feelings for the horse. I stuttered out some sort of a reply and tried to stop myself from jumping in the air and screaming. That moment will live with me for the rest of my life.
The greatest personal satisfaction I gained from looking after Slew and which sealed my appointment came not long afterwards. From the time I arrived, Slew always had a problem with 'thrush' in his feet. It wasn't chronic but as you know, there is always the danger of it becoming so. Every other day it seemed, the veterinary surgeons, Dr. Witherspoon and Mike Tanner would be observing it along with the farrier Beach Faulkner. Everything they seemed to try just couldn't get rid of it and once it remained it was always a bit of a concern. It was then that I decided that I would try my own remedy. It wasn't anything risky, simply an old Irish remedy which my father had often used at home for the same problem. It involved the purchase of some goods from the local Supermarket (at my own expense I might add!!) which came to a grand total of less than $5. Over the next 3 weeks, I applied this remedy every evening before I went home. I remember the day when Beach, the farrier, was due to arrive to dress all of the stallion's feet. I suddenly became nervous and had visions of him calling out \"Oh my God, what's happened to Slew's feet, they're in a terrible state\" followed by John Williams running me out of the place. Anyway, I was pottering about nervously as Slew's feet were being dressed. 'Buster' used hold the stallions for Beach when he was working on them. Dr. Witherspoon was there as was Ernie Fraiser. Next thing, I heard the dreaded words, \"Sandy, get over here\". I quickly did what I was told. Beach Faulkner, whom I didn't really know too well at the time and didn't quite know what to make of him, said \"What have you being doing with this horse's feet?\". Before I could get the words out of my mouth, he followed up his own question with \"Whatever the hell you've done, it's worked, the thrush has completely disappeared. I've never seen his feet in such good condition\". The sense of relief for me was huge. There were smiles all round. I would say that for everybody it was a big relief and it gave me huge personal satisfaction. To that extent, any time any of the stallions had a foot problem, Ernie used to get me to have a look at it first. It was a great boost for my confidence.
Myself and Slew continued to get on famously. It was extraordinary, but he could almost talk to you. He seemed to understand what you were saying to him. If you were telling him a sad story, he looked sad. If it was a funny story, you could almost see him laughing. He seemed so human in many ways. I well remember the odd occasion after work when there would be a thunderstorm warning. The people on the evening shift would have to get the stallions back into their stalls before it arrived. Sometimes I would get a call at home asking me to come back in to help them catch Slew out in his paddock. I could tell straight away that he was playing with them. Just having a bit of fun. All I would have to do is walk to his gate, give him that familiar whistle that he knew and up he would come from the bottom of his paddock and stand there at the gate for me. The others would look on in astonishment. I used to love it and you could almost see Slew sniggering to himself! He was such a character. When I used to clean out his stall whilst he was in it, I would often say to him \"Slew, get the brush\" and he would go over and try to nudge it in my direction, or even grab it with his teeth and push it across the stall. I have many witnesses to this and it always used to fascinate me as well as them. It was whilst I was cleaning his stall that I met both of you for what I believe was the one and only time. It was slightly embarrassing for me at the time as I was talking away to him as usual when all of a sudden you both appeared in the doorway. You probably thought that there was someone else (human that is) in the stall with me from the way I was talking. Naturally, I recognised you straight away and hoped that whatever it was you might have heard me saying didn't make you feel that there was a bit of a half-wit looking after your horse. Over the years however, I have long begun to realise from various books and articles as well as this very website, that I was hopefully the sort of person you would have wanted to look after Slew. Someone who cared about him, who treated him like he was a person and looked after him like he was one of his own family. This past year has made me realise that these are the very traits which set you apart from most other owners in this world. You have always wanted what is best for the horse and not what he can do for your bank balance, something which is sadly lacking in so many these days. Some times people can forget how lucky they have been but it is obvious that you never did and just as you have appreciated this good fortune, so too was Slew lucky to have found such wonderful and caring owners.
You, like me, will remember the Keeneland July sale of 1981, Slew's first crop of yearlings. I always remember though that another of the Slew string, J.O. Tobin, was the hotter property from a commercial point of view at the time. He was a fantastic looking, flashy sort and had passed on much of these traits to his offspring. Let's be honest here. There were many non-believers when it came to Slew's potential as a sire. Racing freaks don't become great sires was one of the many comments which used to get under my skin. Affirmed was the one who was going to prove to be the better of the two in the long term with his more fashionable pedigree. Poor Affirmed, but I had begun to dislike him because of it even though it wasn't his fault!! I used say to Slew, \"you were a better racehorse and what's more, you'll be the better sire. Give it a few years and they will all eat their words\". Sure enough, J.O. Tobin was the leading freshman sire at the sales that year but when it came to the track, it was like the old days, a one horse race! As in the Marlboro Cup, we saw the same result when it was Affirmed's turn!\r\n I was back in Ireland when Slew's progeny hit the track and I derived great pleasure from watching his meteoric rise up the sires' table. Just like the old days. What I also remember of his first progeny was when us stallion grooms used to give those down in the yearling barns a hand to walk them in the paddock prior to the sales. Like most of the lads, I was only interested in walking one of the progeny of my own string and as such I used to walk out the filly out of Strip Poker. Only that Slew was her sire, I probably wouldn't have taken such an interest but because of it I followed her career as closely as I could. Her name was Landaluce and what a racing machine she turned out to be! I must confess that apart from being a typical Slew, I didn't see anything that set her apart but in hindsight I suppose the fact that she was a typical Slew was enough in itself. What an absolute tragedy that she lost her life. I saw her races and I have to say I have never ever seen a two-year-old filly do what she did. She was surely going to be one of the greats. I subsequently named my house after her and enjoy people asking me where I got the name from. After an hour, they are usually sorry they asked!!
It was with extreme sadness that towards the end of 1981 I took the decision to leave Spendthrift. I was offered a job back home which I couldn't refuse. A job as manager of one of Ireland's best known stud farms and one which was only 4 miles from my home. I thought long and hard about it. It wasn't so much Spendthrift that I didn't want to leave, but Slew. I would have followed him wherever he went if you had wanted me too but this job was a great break for me and I was only 21. My time with Slew still remains the greatest period of my life.
As for me, I am now one of the 4 handicappers with the Irish Jockey Club. It is a job which I thoroughly enjoy and hope to stay in for the forseeable future. I am writing this as we approach next weekend's Belmont Stakes, a time which must surely bring back vivid memories for yourselves. I believe that it is also poignant that there is a horse called Smarty Jones on the scene who will be hoping to emulate Slew in becoming only the second horse to win the Triple Crown whilst undefeated. I don't know about you but I hope that he can do it. Everything about him brings back memories of the old days. The underdog against the blue bloods. Up until now, I always secretly hoped that all of those who attempted to win the Triple Crown would fail because it made Slew's achievement (and Affirmed's) all the more meritorious (what a decade the 70's was for racing). However I have found myself for the first time getting that same tingle which I got when I first heard of Seattle Slew. I believe that he will do it and I look forward to it giving me that same shiver down my spine which I felt 27 years ago. It hasn't gone unnoticed by me that there are 11 letters in Smarty Jones, the same number as in that of Slew. If he does manage it, it will bring everything flooding back and I hope that out somewhere out there, there is someone just like me who will find the same path and get as much pleasure out of the horse as I did all those years ago when I looked after the greatest horse who was ever born.
With kindest regards,