May 7, 1977
There was much anticipation in the heart of Bluegrass Country during the weeks leading up to the 103rd running of the Kentucky Derby. After all, it's not often that a superstar can attempt to remain unbeaten by winning the sport's most famous horse race upon returning to run in his home state for the very first time. On the morning of May 7, 1977, the Louisville Courier-Journal printed an eight-column banner across its front page that read: "Can He or Can't He? Slew Will Say Today."
By the time the sun set on that historic day the general consensus was that Seattle Slew had spoken a mouthful.
The competition Seattle Slew would face in the Derby was very formidable, despite what some vocal critics of the era were attempting to portray. Run Dusty Run and For the Moment figured to be two of Seattle Slew's toughest opponents. Their combined record showed twenty-four firsts and seconds in just twenty-six starts. There aren't many Champions that faced opponents of that caliber in their respective Kentucky Derby races.
As post time of the race drew near, Seattle Slew began encountering a myriad of obstacles. As history would prove, he was the perfect horse to overcome them. The obstacles began during his walk to the paddock and continued through the running of the race. There was the incident when the band suddenly began playing the national anthem in full force at the very moment when Slew was walking by them through the passageway that leads under the stands to the paddock. That caused the fiery colt to jump skyward and then get up on his toes and begin prancing his "War Dance" before he was even saddled. In addition, the afternoon was very humid and Slew began sweating profusely, causing expert network analysts to state on national television that his chances were being compromised. In the enclosed paddock, a mob of shouting, banner-waving spectators surrounded Slew's area, some of them reaching through wire screens in an attempt to touch the horse or grab hairs from his tail. At one point, Slew lashed out with a hind leg and kicked the wooden side of the open stall.
After the post parade and warm-up, Seattle Slew, wearing number 3 on his saddlecloth, entered the fourth post position in a field of 15 three-year-old colts. When the starting gates opened, Slew banged into the gate and came out sideways, colliding with rival Get the Axe, veering to his right, and nearly unseating jockey Jean Cruguet. Slew had forfeited several lengths, valuable momentum, and critical positioning to his rivals. What followed was an amazing display of will to win. Seattle Slew, as if sensing the seriousness of the dilemma, desperately called upon his incredible speed and power. He somehow created enough room to bull his way through horses, and miraculously was fighting for the lead with For the Moment after the first quarter of a mile.
"Horses don't run the first quarter of a mile in the Kentucky Derby that way and get away with it. And I thought, 'he's fatally compromised' " reflected William Nack, Sports Illustrated horse racing writer.
Slew allowed For the Moment to set the pace but stayed directly to his outside, as if measuring him all the while. The half-mile fraction was :45 4/5, the second fastest ever recorded in the Kentucky Derby. Only one horse, Bold Forbes, had ever run that fast for the first half-mile of the Kentucky Derby and still finished in the money. Considering the start and the lengths that Slew spotted his rivals, he had run considerably faster than :45 4/5 at this point. Nearing the top of the stretch after three quarters of a mile in 1:10 3/5, Seattle Slew and Cruguet decided it was time to take command of the race.
"Here he had just run the opening quarter in something like :21 flat and the half mile in less than :45, and coming around the turn you could see that Cruguet had a handful of horse and hadn't asked him (to run)," owner Mickey Taylor recalled. "I just didn't know how great a horse he was until then. He had every excuse in the world to get beat, but he was just that good."
It was then that Seattle Slew kicked into overdrive and drew clear of For the Moment and the field.
Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr. was aboard For the Moment that fateful afternoon. After completing the race, Cordero was convinced that Seattle Slew had been trying to communicate with him during the running.
"I was on the lead, and Slew came after me," Cordero recalled. "He was looking at me. I was running head-to-head with him, and he was giving me different looks, like he was trying to intimidate me.
"Here was Seattle Slew right next to me, and I said, 'Wow, this horse came up quick,' and there he was looking at me. I never, ever knew a horse that could look at me (during a race), but he looked at me. And Seattle Slew just kept looking at me, passed me, and defeated every other challenge from behind and I said to myself, 'that horse is a Champion!' "
Under Cruguet's intermittent whipping, Slew drew off by 4 lengths in mid-stretch. He was eased the final sixteenth of a mile and finished 1 and ¾ lengths ahead of Run Dusty Run. Sanhedrin would finish third.
"Seattle Slew was the most deserving winner in the history of the Kentucky Derby," declared the late Louisville newspaperman Mike Barry, who was present for all but four of the Churchill Downs classic races from 1922 through 1991. "In all the Derbies I've seen, I never saw a horse have as much trouble as Seattle Slew had and still win the race."
The late racing historian Jim Bolus said Seattle Slew's Derby was "a lesson in excuses; the lesson being that great horses don't need them."
Bolus said he would frequently think back to Seattle Slew's performance in the Kentucky Derby whenever he would hear a trainer explaining how circumstances conspired to defeat his horse.
"When I hear that I think, 'that might have defeated your horse, but it wouldn't have beaten Seattle Slew,' " Bolus said.
Race profile written by Charles M. Raehse