The Last of a Kind
August 1, 2002 - American Turf Monthly
by Ellen Parker
When Seattle Slew gave a great sigh and closed his eyes for the last time on May 7, exactly twenty-five years to the day that he had begun his successful quest for a Triple Crown, something shifted in the Thoroughbred breed. Devoid of the more fragile blood that permeates our runners today, he was the last of the real true superstars.
Slew was a horse who began his life looking for respect, earned it, lost it and earned it again and again until every Doubting Thomas left had to acknowledge what had been there all along a quality of the most genuine sort. And if some of the people around him were less Thoroughbred than he, then the most important of them were there at the end to prove that exposure to him had caused them to be the best that they could be by sheer association.
The dark bay youngster first had to live with the idea that he was not very correct, which was ridiculous. He toed out a bit, but he was sound and strong and ran that way. But no one could ever un-ring that bell history has him crooked, and crooked he remains.
History also seems to insist he was not very well bred. And while it is true that he was his dam's first foal and from one of only 2 crops his sire would produce, he was anything but badly bred. Hailing from his female line were such great horses as Mr. Prospector and Tourbillon. His male line was full of leading sires Nearco-*Nasrullah and Bold Ruler. He was even inbred to two of the greatest families of all time, *La Troienne and Frizette.
But the story sounded better the other way, so Slew was written up as a crooked, ill-bred awkward horse called "Baby Huey" in his youth. Until a fairy princess came along and changed all that. Her name was Karen Taylor.
There is, from time to time, a great love affair between man or woman and horse, whether we are talking about the little girl down the road who loves her pony or the obvious love John Nerud had for Dr. Fager. Having witnessed such love, we know it exists, but it may have existed in its purest form between Karen Taylor and Seattle Slew.
For Karen, Slew did just about everything. And while he will always be most famous for winning a Triple Crown, his greatest victories were in overcoming illnesses with Karen at his side.
Slew fairly flew though his juvenile year and he was so impressive in winning all three of his starts that there was no question about his earning a championship even though Run Dusty Run had won four stakes, three of them graded. That colt was sired by Derby winner Dust Commander, and he would be back at three to challenge this upstart champion.
The new champion was ready for him, of course, and by the time the Triple Crown was written into the record books, Run Dusty Run had placings in all three races, but never could he beat the black colt. Yet because the span between Citation and Secretariat was 25 years and the span between Secretariat and Slew was only four, there were those who felt that Slew had simply gotten lucky and been born a good horse into a bad crop. He would not be able to silence his critics for another year.
After the Triple Crown, Slew's perfect record and perfect luck - took a turn for the worse. First his owners decided to do something really stupid and take him on a road show to the west coast The first stop was Hollywood Park , where an exhausted Slew fell victim to a fresh and feisty J. O. Tobin in the Swaps Stakes, his first loss. A subsequent visit to Longacres, the Washington racing home of his owners, made the fans happy but did nothing for Slew. He was through for the year.
No one saw him again for almost seven months and they were a rocky seven months. There were problems within the partnership. Trainer Billy Turner, who had done such a superior job in training the colt through the Triple Crown, wasn't busy enough to control his alcohol problem and was fired by the "Slew Crew". But most troublesome of all was the horse himself, who was so ill his white count reached unheard of numbers.
Through it all, however, Slew's fairy princess was there. It was she who talked to him, worried about him, prayed that he'd make it. And the beautiful black stallion that he had become heard her, responded, grew ever stronger and raced again.
No one knew quite what to expect when Slew came back to the races. He began by winning two seven furlong allowance races, then dropped the 1 1/16 mi. Patterson Handicap by a neck to eventual champion Dr. Patches. He was then ready to flex his muscles as never before.
In his next two races he forever silenced those critics who said he'd never beaten a good horse. He twice defeated the newly crowned Triple Crown winner Affirmed, who beat a couple of pretty good horses named Alydar and Spectacular Bid in his day. In one of those races, he also earned the title "great" for all time. Up until that time, all Slew's wins had been relatively easy, save the early part of his Kentucky Derby when he had to "bull" his way to the front after a terrible beginning.
In the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Slew dueled with Affirmed (whose saddle had slipped and whose rider, Steve Cauthen, had almost no control of him) and the pair ran the first six furlongs of the 1 mi. race in 1:09 2/5. When Affirmed stopped, Slew had no time for rest, for a fresh Exceller a true router under Bill Shoemaker pounced on the softened up champion. He should have gone right on by. He would have gone right on by any other horse. But Slew would have none of it.
Like a man pulling himself up a rope with his hands alone, Slew drew even with Exceller and almost looked him in the eye. But the wire came a step too soon. Exceller won the money, the trophy, the place in the record books.
But Slew, who had passed him just a step past the wire, won what mattered most the love and respect of every racing fan in the stands that day and those who merely watched from home on television. Karen Taylor, her face shining with tears, said, "I've never been so proud of him. I'm not crying because he lost, but because he tried so hard."
Slew ran one more time. Maybe it was so he could go out a winner, maybe because it was only fitting that he do something the legendary champions like his great-grandsires Bold Ruler and Round Table did. The old timers used to say that a horse was not a man until he won around two turns with his weight up, so Slew did that, too, defeating an overmatched field in the Stuyvesant Handicap under no less than 134 pounds.
With that icing on the cake, Slew was off to stud, first at Spendthrift Farm and later to Three Chimneys. At Spendthrift, he was not too sure he liked his mares at first or not all of them anyhow, but he soon got the hang of things and in the minimum amount of time necessary, he also got a superstar named Landaluce. Though that brilliant, unbeaten filly died all too soon, she was but the bellweather of her sire's stud career.
At the time of his death, he had sired 102 stakes winners, 56 of them graded and his daughters had produced 100 more. Keep in mind that there are Slews still running and Slews yet to run and that his daughters will be in production for many seasons yet to come. His sons, too, are fine sires, whether we are discussing a champion like A. P. Indy who has seen nothing but superior mares or a non-winner like Slewacide who, stuck on a Quarter horse farm in Oklahoma , got two millionaires in Clever Trevor and Slew Of Damascus.
Slew even came close to having a Triple Crown winning son, but Swale worked too fast at Pimlico before the Preakness and lost the middle jewel. Eight days after the Belmont , he was lost altogether. A subsequent necropsy suggested that the almost black colt had run all his life with a heart defect, emphasizing that his sire's courage filtered down in many ways to his greatest offspring.
When Slew required two spinal surgeries in 2001 and this spring, Karen and Mickey Taylor sold their home in Washington and moved to Kentucky to be with him. They were with him still when he breathed his last, his great head in the lap of his fairy princess.
Seldom has a horse touched so many lives, and seldom have those who knew him been so eloquent in their praise. Paul Mallory, who was farm manager at White Horse Acres where Slew was born, said it best. "With Slew, it's always been in his eyes. He had such deep eyes to him that you couldn't help but look at him and he could look right through you."
Many years ago, a man named John Taintor Foote wrote a story called "The Look of Eagles". In it, he described the look of which Mallory speaks: "About the head of a truly great horse there is an air of freedom unconquerable. The eyes seem to look on heights beyond our gaze. It is the look of a spirit that can soar. It is the birthright of eagles."
Under ordinary circumstances, with his great heart stilled, one might think the look of eagles is also quelled. But Thoroughbred blood has no time for rest. Consider that the first foals of the grand Event of the Year arrived this year and that Honest Lady and Surfside have yet to produce their first foals. For many years to come, we expect to see Slew's blood running with the best.
And while there may be other Triple Crown winners yet to come, how many will bull their way through a wall of horses to win their Derbies, beat other Triple Crown winners, carry 134 pounds? How many will sire over 100 stakes winners of the highest quality? Not many, we would think.
But if by chance a horse should come along whose deep amber eye strikes terror into the hearts of those who dare do battle with him, look deep into his pedigree, my friends. Look for the name of a one-of-a-kind horse who lends to his kin a fierce tenacity, a will of iron, a look of eagles. Look and know that Slew is still very much with us.