One In A Million
June 15, 1977 - The Blood-Horse
Seattle Slew was about to go where only one other horse had gone before. Eight years earlier, Majestic Prince, a record-priced yearling, went into the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) unbeaten following wins in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Those two races had taken their toll on the Raise a Native colt, and he finished a lackluster second behind Arts and Letters. No such thing happened to Seattle Slew after he won the Derby and Preakness to remain unbeaten.
"He was super after the Preakness," said co-owner Mickey Taylor from New York the week of this year's Belmont. "He was tearing down the barn the next morning."
Seattle Slew arrived back at Belmont Park, and trainer Billy Turner started tuning up the colt for the 11/2-mile race, made all the more difficult because of heavy media coverage. Slew worked a mile in 1:382/5, then went six furlongs in 1:112/5 the week of the race.
"The 1:11 was unbelievable," said Taylor, who raced Seattle Slew with his wife, Karen, and Dr. Jim Hill and his wife, Sally. "You could tell he was happy being home."
Seattle Slew's last work came the morning before the Belmont following a day of rain. "It was a sea of mud, and (exercise rider) Mike Kennedy kept him in the middle of the track," Taylor said. "He worked three furlongs in a slow :351/5, went another furlong in an exhausting :47, then was pulled up in :59.
"I watched it with (the late racing writer) Pete Axthelm, a big Slew fan, and he said it looked like the slop didn't bother him. I got a call from a clocker, a guy named Jules, who said he thinks Slew likes the mud."
Slew passed the mud test with flying colors, but the big question still remained: Could this speedster handle the exhausting Belmont distance? Seven owners in particular wanted to find out and to see if their horses could do the same.
Verna Lehmann of Golden Chance Farm was one of them. Her Run Dusty Run was second in the Derby and third in the Preakness. Slew's other opponents included Preakness runner-up Iron Constitution, Derby third-place finisher Sanhedrin, and a new face, Spirit Level, whose owner, the Chenery family's Meadow Stable, had won the 1973 Triple Crown with Secretariat. Spirit Level had captured the 11/8-mile Peter Pan Stakes over Sanhedrin June 1 at Belmont.
Taylor's immediate concern before the race was the condition of the muddy track going into and around the first turn. The Belmont starts right in front of the stands, and the day's preceding races, like they do most days, had started on the backstretch. Taylor felt it difficult to gauge how the mud in that area of the track might affect Seattle Slew.
Race day came and everything was going fine except there was no Seattle Slew nearing the post parade. "Billy was late getting Slew to the saddling area because he had been in Esposito's (Tavern)," Taylor said. "He figured they couldn't start the race without him. It turned out he was right."
The Belmont finally went off at 5:47, and it didn't take long for Seattle Slew to establish his dominance under jockey Jean Cruguet. "When he came into the stretch, there was no way they were going to catch him," Taylor said. "After he crossed the finish line, I said, 'How sweet it is. We fell in love with the right horse.' "
Closest to Seattle Slew under the wire were Run Dusty Run and Sanhedrin. "After the race, Run Dusty Run's trainer, Smiley Adams, said there were five to six inches of mud around the first turn," Taylor said. "Lou Rondinello said the Derby was a good win, but this was even better because of the way he handled the first turn."
The term "unbeaten Triple Crown winner" was now a reality. But not for long.