Gone. But Not Forgotten
May 18, 2002 - The Thoroughbred Times
by John P. Sparkman
On October 16, 1976 , the author experienced a racetrack epiphany. He had just witnessed what remains, nearly 26 years later, the most impressive performance by a two-year-old Thoroughbred of his experience-but that was not the epiphany.
No, the revelatory insight inspired by Seattle Slew's casual 9 3/4-length demolition of the 1976 Champagne Stakes (G1) field in 1:34 2/5 was that it presented an extraordinarily rare opportunity for the author to cash a bet.
What he knew (and was sure his friends would not) was that no two-year-old since Count Fleet in '42, except for the brilliant but unsound Vitriolic in 1967, had won the Champagne in less than 1:35 . It was not too difficult to bait several friends into betting against Seattle Slew winning the 1977 Triple Crown, and the author gleefully collected on that bet the following June.
Many others collected much larger sums on literal or figurative bets on Seattle Slew throughout his long, eventful, and fiercely honorable life that ended at Hill 'n' Dale Farm near Lexington on May 7, 25 years to the day after he won the 1977 Kentucky Derby (G1).
Principal beneficiaries of the largesse of his generous and noble spirit were Karen and Mickey Taylor, who wagered $17,500 on him in the form of a bid at the 1975 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale.
Veterinarian Jim Hill, along with trainer David Hofmans, had picked the big, immature colt out for the Taylors , and they later made Hill and his wife equal partners. Seattle Slew returned $1,208,726 in racetrack earnings on that $17,500 wager, $12-million in syndication value upon his retirement to stud in 1979, and doubtless more than $50-million to the Taylors and the Hills in stud fees and sales of offspring.
Foaled at White Horse Acres Farm near Lexington on February 15, 1974 , Seattle Slew was bred by Kentucky restaurateur Ben S. Castleman. From the first crop of 1971 Jersey Derby winner Bold Reasoning, he also was the first foal of 1972 Fair Grounds Oaks winner My Charmer, by Poker. Beyond his immaturity, his breeding partially accounted for his modest auction price.
The Taylors and Hills sent the colt to trainer Billy Turner, a friend of Hill's, instead of Hofmans because it was obvious the big, backward colt could not be trained toward the early juvenile races in the Southwest that the Taylors were targeting when they bought him.
Broken at Virginia 's Middleburg Training Center by Turner's wife, Paula, Seattle Slew was at first so awkward that he was called "Baby Huey," after a clumsy cartoon character. That image vanished as soon as he was asked to run in earnest, but Turner wisely delayed his debut until September 20, 1976 . He had not been able to hide his speed from railbirds, however; he went off as the 2.60-to-1 favorite and won by five lengths in 1:10 1/5. A 3 1/2-length allowance win and that revelatory Champagne followed quickly, earning Slew acclamation as the year's champion two-year-old male.
Seattle Slew's progression to becoming an undefeated Triple Crown winner the following year was masterminded by Turner, who carefully and cleverly handled the challenge of getting a breakaway, excitable, headstrong colt fit enough to win the Kentucky Derby while leaving enough in the tank for the Preakness (G1) and Belmont (G1) Stakes. That Belmont was Seattle Slew's ninth consecutive win in as many starts, making him the only undefeated Triple Crown winner.
After the Triple
Turner knew Slew needed a break after the Triple Crown and pulled his shoes with the intent of not running again until Saratoga Race Course's August meet, but apparently the Hills and Taylors thought the colt could do anything and insisted on running him in the Swaps Stakes (G1). His fourth-place finish at Hollywood Park and the subsequent acrimony between the owners and Turner led to Slew's transfer to trainer Doug Peterson that autumn.
After surviving a near-fatal bout with colitis early in his four-year-old year, Slew returned to the races better than ever, though his season was hampered by minor injuries. Sidelined after winning a May allowance race, he came back again with another allowance victory but then was beaten by a neck when not fully fit by champion sprinter Dr. Patches in the Paterson Handicap (G3) at the Meadowlands in September. That defeat resulted in a rider change from Jean Cruguet, who had been on his back from the beginning, to Angel Cordero Jr.
Seattle Slew defeated Affirmed by three lengths in the 1978 Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap (G1) in the first-ever meeting of Triple Crown winners, and he also won the Woodward Stakes (G1) and Stuyvesant Handicap (G3) that autumn. Between those two races, he was beaten by a nose by Exceller in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) under atrocious conditions.
For the author, the two races that defined and deified Seattle Slew's career, other than the Champagne , were his Kentucky Derby victory and his Jockey Club Gold Cup defeat. In the Derby , Seattle Slew broke slowly when an assistant starter held his head a bit too long, and then he slammed into Get the Axe, leaving him several lengths behind the leaders.
Unaccustomed to being behind and totally unwilling to remain so, Seattle Slew grabbed the bit from Cruguet, shoved Affiliate, Flag Officer, and Bob's Dusty aside, and barged through a narrow opening to grab early pacesetter For the Moment by the throat before the field passed under the finish line the first time. It was a heart-stopping display of Thoroughbred arrogance and indomitability unmatched in the author's memory.
The Gold Cup, though it ended in defeat, was the race that removed all doubt about Slew's courage and stamina. In the Marlboro Cup, Affirmed's jockey, Steve Cauthen, allowed Slew to take an unchallenged early lead and paid the price. The young jockey was determined not to allow that scenario repeat itself and gunned Affirmed to join Slew on the lead in the Gold Cup.
But Cauthen lost most control over Affirmed when his saddle slipped on the first turn, and the two Triple Crown winners blazed through six furlongs in 1:09 2/5 in the slop. That was quite enough for Affirmed, but Slew kept on, and even when the stout Exceller galloped by at the head of the stretch, Seattle Slew fought back with the kind of visible display of unmistakable courage and will that has made the Thoroughbred an icon of nobility for 300 years. Slew lost by a nose, but he won more hearts in defeat than he ever did in victory.
Seattle Slew's career at stud was almost as triumphant as his racing life. He stood his first season at Spendthrift Farm in 1979 but, when his first crop of yearlings went to the sales in 1981, many horsemen preferred yearlings by the elegant J. O. Tobin, Slew's conqueror in the Swaps, to the rougher models sired by Seattle Slew. The five J. O. Tobins at the 1981 Keeneland July sale averaged $438,000, while the seven Slews averaged $380,000.
Among those seven was a $650,000 filly out of Strip Poker, by Bold Bidder, purchased by trainer D. Wayne Lukas for Larry French and Barry Beall. Named Landaluce, she won all five of her starts in Seattle Slew fashion at two in 1982, earning champion two-year-old filly honors before her untimely death that December.
That first crop also included champion Slew o' Gold and Grade 1 winners Adored and Slewpy. Slew's second crop included Kentucky Derby winner and champion three-year-old Swale and Grade 1 winners Seattle Song and Tsunami Slew. Those two crops combined to make Seattle Slew leading sire in 1984.
Slew could hardly have made a better start to his stud career, and shares were soon changing hands for $3-million or more, making his theoretical value $120-million.
After the collapse of Spendthrift Farm, Slew was transferred to Three Chimneys Farm in 1985, and he remained there until last month. After his second surgery for a spinal problem earlier this year, the Taylors decided to move him to Hill 'n' Dale to provide Slew with a quieter environment.
Although his popularity cooled during the bloodstock crash of the late 1980s, Seattle Slew continued to sire champions throughout his career, as recounted by the accompanying crop-by-crop analysis. At the time of his death, 102 of his 996 named foals of racing age (10.2%) had won stakes, 56 at group or graded level (5.6%), including 26 Group 1 or Grade 1 winners (2.6%), and seven champions. At the time of his death, his 686 starters (68.9%) and 466 winners (46.8%) had earned $75,926,135 at the racetrack.
His three best sons were 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, 1983 champion three-year-old male and 1984 champion older male Slew o' Gold, and 1984 champion three-year-old Swale. Swale died of a heart defect shortly after his Belmont Stakes triumph, and Slew o' Gold has led a checkered career at stud, but A.P. Indy is regarded as one of the best current American sires. He emulated his sire by producing an ill-fated champion juvenile filly last year, the recently deceased Tempera.
Seattle Slew's daughters have accomplished at least as much as his sons. In addition to Landaluce, Surfside was a champion on the track, earning champion three-year-old filly honors in 2000, but other daughters of lesser ability have passed on the Seattle Slew spirit to their offspring. His daughters have produced 100 stakes winners to date, led by 2002 Racing Hall of Fame inductee Cigar, North America 's leading money earner.
Seattle Slew has often been described as plain, but to the author's eye he was anything but that. Coarse, yes-he inherited the hickory bone structure of Hail to Reason, broodmare sire of Seattle Slew's sire, Bold Reasoning. Crooked, yes-his knees, particularly the right, were marginally offset and turned out a bit, giving him a splay-footed gait that suffered nothing in fluidity and athleticism.
But no horse the author could denigrate as plain ever possessed as noble a head or as fiery an eye as did Seattle Slew. Lengthy, extraordinarily deep-bodied, and, with the exceptionally straight hind leg of his *Nasrullah lineage, no plain horse ever carried himself as regally as did Seattle Slew. No horse described as plain ever stirred the heart like Seattle Slew just standing there exuding his unique vitality.
He is gone, but he will not be forgotten.