September 2, 2000 - The Blood-Horse
by Lenny Shulman
Judging from the way he's wolfing down hay and carrots and stalking around his stall, Seattle Slew appears to be recovering quite well from the spinal cord fusion surgery performed on him April 2. The 26-year-old stallion gets out for walks or, if he's feeling particularly frisky, jogs, four times a day on a lead. A small pen has been constructed outside his barn, and on good days he thrills his handlers by bucking in it like a young colt.
Seattle Slew's recovery is closely watched because of who he was on the racetrack and who he has been in the breeding shed. One of the most beloved horses in this country and throughout the world, Slew, with the recent death of Bold Forbes, now wears the mantle of oldest living Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner. And while he seems out of the life-threatening danger that hung over him last winter when his neurological problems surfaced, a multi-million-dollar question still lingers over the star of Three Chimneys Farm: Will this great sire be able to breed again?
For now, all concerned are quite pleased with his comeback from serious surgery. "I wouldn't call it pressure, but when you're dealing with one of the greatest horses who's ever lived, a horse who's a living legend whom so many people love so deeply, you don't work around a horse like that without being mindful of who he is," said Dan Rosenberg, general manager of Three Chimneys.
All who have worked with Slew comment he is among the smartest horses they've seen, a key factor in his recent recovery. Wes Lanter served as stallion manager at Three Chimneys for 10 years before moving to Overbrook Farm last January. "Slew is very aware of who he is, and what he's done," said Lanter. "He's as smart a horse as you'd want to be around. He has that air. For a horse who's 26, he looks fantastic, and a lot of that can be attributed to Three Chimneys' program of keeping stallions ridden and exercised. Certainly that has physical benefits, but mentally it keeps them relaxed, and I think that's helped Slew through the years with his weight and his demeanor."
Trouble cropped up last January when the son of Bold Reasoning exhibited a lack of coordination and was treated for a neurological deficit. Beginning Feb. 15, he covered 22 mares, and the farm announced he would be restricted to 46 shareholder seasons. However, one month later, the stallion was found to be suffering from a compression of his spinal cord caused by arthritic changes in his vertebrae. Three Chimneys announced at that time he would be taken out of stallion service for the year.
"This was a challenging diagnosis," said Dr. Barrie Grant, who performed the surgery on Slew. "Test results aren't always conclusive. Because of the uncoordination, we tried EPM medication but he failed to respond to it. He did respond to arthritis medication. He had problems with joints in the back of his neck. You can only inject so many times, then you must make a learned decision about the compression."
Grant, who is based at the San Luis Rey Equine Hospital in Southern California, has performed more than 400 such spinal procedures, mostly on show and jump horses, as well as young Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. "Most of the time it's a young horse who hasn't made it to the races," Grant said. "The signs are confusing because they act like they've got hock or stifle problems or a sore back. When a rider gets on they don't want to change leads. And an attitudinal change also comes-they don't want to go to the track and they'll tie up. They get sour. They're uncoordinated enough where they don't feel like doing the job because their cord is compressed and they're uncomfortable."
The procedure on Seattle Slew, performed at Lexington's Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, consisted of putting him under general anesthesia and placing his head in a brace to keep his spine straight. A circular hole was drilled between vertebrae six and seven. A small titanium basket was then hammered partway down into the spinal cord, then screwed in to reduce pressure on the bone. "We now call this basket the Seattle Slew basket," said Grant. "It is actually a millimeter larger than the hole you drill so that you're shoving the bone apart and putting pressure on the basket, which allows for a faster fusion. The bone we drilled out of the inside of the hole was harvested, and all the red bone was put back in to act as its own bone graft without having to put bone cement in there.
"Then we closed him up. The old horse laid there for 75 minutes, rolled, and sprung up so well it brought tears to everyone's eyes."
"An hour after he got out of recovery he was walking around his stall eating hay. If it had been you or me we'd have been in traction with a morphine pump," Rosenberg said. "He has never looked back, and his recovery has been essentially uneventful."
"I'm extremely happy with the way he's doing," commented Grant. "The radiograph shows smoothing that indicates the arthritic condition that was pressing on his spinal cord is going away. From a clinical standpoint I'm impressed, but he's still got a ways to go until it's safe to turn him out and have him gallop across a big paddock. But he's put on weight and looks like he enjoys jiggy-jogging along."
Part of the Slew Crew, as his connections were called during his racing days, have been with him every step of the way. Mickey and Karen Taylor, who own a majority interest in the stallion, and Tom Wade, his groom of 20 years, keep a vigil around their star, making sure he is happy and immaculately groomed. They take him on his walks and jogs, videotaping each outing to send to doctors around the country who monitor his progress. And they also keep a full selection of compact discs on hand for the horse, who was famous in his racing days for being a huge fan of rock music. With age, though, his tastes have changed. Slew is now into Italian opera as well as the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, and Marvin Gaye.
The Washington- and Idaho-based Taylors recently purchased a house in Central Kentucky to be near Three Chimneys. "He's the best of the best," said Mickey Taylor, who is also Slew's syndicate manager. "You can't compare him to any other horse. He's like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Tiger Woods. They're in a league of their own. As a racehorse, a sire of sires, a broodmare sire-no one else has accomplished what he's accomplished. He's given the entire Thoroughbred industry so much." Added Karen, "He's like the child who does everything right."
With his recovery proceeding on the fast track, whether Seattle Slew will be able to breed in 2001 and beyond becomes the next crucial issue. Although seven of the first nine mares he covered in 2000 were reported in foal, the next eight who were examined failed to conceive. The stallion's fertility was seriously compromised at some point during his medical difficulties.
"We don't know why his semen quality declined," said Rosenberg. "It was possibly a function of the medications he was on, possibly a function of old age, or possibly a result of the spinal cord injury. It could be all three of those things, or none of the above. At some point-and we haven't set a target date-we'll collect the horse and do a complete semen analysis to see if the quality has improved."
Mickey Taylor added, "We don't worry about what's going to happen with breeding him again. We have another five months to decide, and we're taking it day by day. When we stopped on him we did it for him. We do what he wants to do." Grant added that in September or October, some six months after the operation, Slew could test-breed a mare without hurting the surgery. The horse still leans right and then left while standing or walking, a cycle that Grant hopes will go away by October or November. Seattle Slew is an aggressive breeder, and his connections don't want him falling off a mare and hurting himself.
"One of my mentors told me when I was 20 years old that when you bring a horse into the barn, you leave his price tag in the van," Rosenberg stated. "Having said that, when I was a 10-year-old kid watching the Kentucky Derby on TV I thought, 'Gee, maybe someday I can get near to a horse like that.' With Seattle Slew, it's been a dream come true."