John Polston's Rub With Greatness
May 18, 2002 - The Blood-Horse
by Steve Haskin
John Polston was one day shy of his 57th birthday when he received a call from Seattle Slew's co-owner Karen Taylor, informing him that the great horse he had rubbed for two years had died at 9 o'clock that morning. It was 25 years to the day since Slew's victory in the 1977 Kentucky Derby.
"That was my birthday present 25 years ago," Polston said. "I only spoke to Karen for a few minutes. She was really broken up and could barely talk. She said (her husband) Mickey had sat up with him 24 hours a day since last week, and assured me he didn't suffer. They'd never let him suffer. They never had any kids; Slew was their child. They had devoted their lives to him since he got sick a few years ago, repaying him for all he had done for them. If there were more people like them I'd probably still be at the racetrack."
It's been more than 20 years since Polston's held a brush and pick in his hands. Life on the backstretch is now a distant memory. He no longer misses the comforting warmth of a Thoroughbred's hide against his hands on a cold winter's morning or seeing the gleam in their coat as they parade to the post on a bright spring afternoon. Life without Seattle Slew was just too empty for him. He tried to stick around as long as he could, but he had already scaled racing's highest peak, and there was no direction to go but down. So, he left, never to return.
"After a horse like Slew, there was nothing," Polston said. "I didn't want to be around horses anymore, because I knew it wouldn't be the same. Everybody expected everything I touched to be another Seattle Slew."
It wasn't the love of horses that lured Polston to the racetrack. He was just a 16-year-old kid looking for a job, any job. When he left the racetrack, he was a 35-year-old man looking for a job, any job.
He decided spending time with his wife, Ola, and their two kids was more important to him than the daily, arduous grind of the racetrack. After driving delivery trucks and working for various companies, he finally found a job right around the corner from his house, working as a maintenance man in an apartment complex.
"There was no future for me at the racetrack," Polston said. "When you're young and by yourself, it's a good job, but when you're married and have kids, you have to find something that has decent benefits. Both my sons are grown now and I have three grandkids."
Polston was raised by his grandmother in Baltimore after his mother remarried. "I guess she didn't want to take a child with her," he said. "But we remained close, right up to the day she died. My half-brother worked with horses, and whenever I visited I'd go with him. I had no interest in horses at all. I was raised in the city, and the only horses I saw were the ones pulling carts. Who would have had any idea where I'd wind up?"
Polston got a job working for Mike Smithwick, who trained mostly jumpers on his farm in Maryland . He started out walking hots, then eventually became a groom, making $35 a week, when the stable moved up to New York . He stayed with Smithwick five years before joining brothers Dominick and Lenny Imperio. While working for Smithwick, Polston had met a young, aspiring trainer named Turner, who had also worked for Smithwick.
"Me and Billy used to go to the hunt meets together," Polston recalled. "After leaving Dominick and Lenny, I was out of a job. I saw Billy and he said he needed some help, so I went to work for him."
In the spring of 1976, Turner received four 2-year-olds off the farm whom his wife Paula had broken. Polston took a liking to one of them, a dark bay colt by Bold Reasoning, but he was given to one of the female grooms.
"He was a strong, strapping, wild-acting baby," Polston recalled. "He was a big, playful colt, and when he began training he got so strong, the girl couldn't handle him. Billy came to me and said, 'I got a colt who's big and strong and I need someone who can handle him,' so he gave him to me. I liked him right from the start. I tried to impose my will on him, but he would have nothing to do with that. His thinking was, 'We're gonna do things my way. You don't mess with me and I won't mess with you.' We came to an understanding. We had to. He was one of the strongest horses I ever laid my hands on.
"Billy spotted what we had before anyone else. I'll never forget one morning when we went out to work him. I was standing at the rail. He was supposed to work a half-mile and gallop out three-
quarters. He comes rolling down the stretch, and Billy is on the pony heading back up the track waving his arms. I didn't know what was going on. Afterward, Billy kept going, 'Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!' Slew had galloped out in 1:10 and change and Billy was trying to slow him down. That's when we knew he was a special horse."
It came as no surprise to anyone in the barn when Slew went on to become the champion 2-year-old, winning the Champagne Stakes by almost 10 lengths in a stakes record 1:342⁄5. During the winter at Hialeah , the key word was "relax." Turner tried to keep Slew as calm and settled as possible, knowing he would have to harness a good deal of his speed in order to get him through the Triple Crown. "He was relaxed," Polston said, "but he was never what you'd call docile. Even when he wasn't in full training, he still was a handful to walk."
Following decisive victories in an allowance race, the Flamingo Stakes (gr. I), and the Wood Memorial (gr. I), Seattle Slew came to the Kentucky Derby undefeated in six starts. The media crush was taxing on Turner, the help, and the horse. "It was a madhouse," Polston said. "There was always a crowd of people around, and it was hard for the horses to relax, and hard for the people working with them to relax. I very seldom left the stable area. Mickey's father had begun working as the nightwatchman in New York . He and Mickey's mother lived in a camper right outside the stable area. They had this Doberman named Lance, and you didn't mess with Lance. I fell in love with Mickey's father. He was one of the most down-to-earth people I ever met. Me and him always laugh about this one incident that happened while I was grazing Slew before the Derby . There were all these photographers around, and all of a sudden a car went by and Slew reared up and literally picked me up off the ground."
Another incident two days before the Derby , involving Polston and the regular nightwatchman, was kept quiet. "Nobody was supposed to feed Slew except me," Polston said. "But he went in there and put alfalfa down in Slew's stall. I got mad and said, 'Man, you know better than that.' He said something smart, and me and him got into it. The guys walked me away, and when I got back, the police were there. They arrested me on assault charges. What was funny about the story is that I was arrested and released on bail, and never left the front gate of the racetrack. Track security took care of the whole thing. I realized then how important it was to have a good horse. After the altercation, Jim (co-owner Hill) went over to Billy and the first thing out of his mouth was: 'Fire him.' But neither Billy nor Mickey listened to him."
Polston knew he was going to be in the limelight, so he went out and bought himself a three-piece powder blue suit for $100. He watched the Derby from the rail, and when he saw Slew break badly, it didn't bother him at all. "Once he got to the lead, I said, 'Well, that's it.' I knew they couldn't beat him."
Instead of coming out of the race tired, Slew was a wild horse. He had run like an angry bronc, bullying his way through traffic, and he was still angry after the race. "It was the only time I was scared of him," Polston said. "He was so high-strung that night, he was evil, just evil. I couldn't believe how wound tight he was. It was like he hadn't even been in a race. I had to take him from the hotwalker, and he ran over me a couple of times. I'd never seen him like that before. After the race, we had a couple of beers outside the barn. And Mickey had some champagne brought in. We bedded Slew down, and I bedded down right along with him."
After winning the Preakness, Slew was brought back home to Belmont and finally seemed relaxed. On June 11, he easily won the Belmont Stakes, becoming the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history. It had been a long, hard road, but he was now a living legend destined for immortality. "After the race, I put Slew to bed," Polston said, "then went home, took a bath and went to bed myself. I was drained."
Following the Triple Crown, times were difficult, as friction between Turner and the Hills and Taylors grew, beginning with the decision to run Slew in the Swaps Stakes three weeks after the Belmont , which resulted in the colt's first career defeat. Polston liked Turner and liked the Taylors , and it was hard for him to watch their impending breakup unfold. "I didn't know all the details, but I really enjoyed working for Billy," he said. "I knew Billy before I knew the Taylors and the Hills. You could walk up to him and ask him for 20 dollars, and whether he knew you or not, he'd give it to you. Billy is one of those happy-go-lucky guys, but he really didn't like the publicity."
Finally, that winter, Turner was fired, and Slew was turned over to Doug Peterson. "When Billy left, he just wished me good luck," Polston said. "I could tell he was hurt. I still couldn't believe a guy who had just won the Triple Crown would get fired. We all knew Billy liked to drink, but as far as I'm concerned he was always a good trainer. Mickey asked me to stay on with the new guy, and I said OK. But I didn't like Doug. Mickey made it clear from the beginning that Doug was the boss. While in Florida , I had a death in the family, and needed to be with my mother in Baltimore . When I told Doug, he wouldn't let me go. He said they needed me there. I said to him, 'I'll tell you what, I'm going to be by my mother's side, and I don't give a damn what you say.' That was it. I left, and never came back. It was very tough having to watch Slew the rest of that year, especially when he got sick and almost died. I felt helpless."
Polston stayed away from the track for a year, spending time with his family in New York . He returned and "knocked around a little," working for several trainers, then left for good in 1980. He missed the track in the beginning, but eventually lost all interest in horses.
"I'm pretty content now," he said. "I've kept in touch with Mickey. We talked about Slew constantly, first over the phone and then by e-mail. Because of Slew I'm in the history books. I rubbed the only undefeated Triple Crown winner. Nobody can say that. I have my picture in the racing Hall of Fame, and that's something my grandkids can see."