Is there a 3-year-old anywhere who can run with Seattle Slew? The unbeaten, untested runner turned last Saturday's Wood Memorial at New York's Aqueduct track into little more than a $100,000 workout. Winning his sixth straight, Slew drubbed an undistinguished field and now heads for Kentucky, where he will be the first undefeated horse to enter the Derby since Majestic Prince in 1969. There is just one question about the Wood: Was it the type of win to scare owners out of a Kentucky Derby or draw them to it?
Not long after the race, Lou Rondinello, the trainer of Darby Dan Farm's second-place finisher, Sanhedrin, was on the phone calling Owner John Galbreath. "I would say that Seattle Slew's race was impressive but not awesome," said Rondinello while waiting to be connected. "His time wasn't all that good. He ran the last eighth of a mile in 13 seconds. You don't win many Derbies with a last eighth that slow. Churchill Downs is a peculiar type of racetrack, and some horses just plain don't like it. Sanhedrin was making up a lot of ground today and I was encouraged by his race." When Rondinello reached Galbreath the answer was "Yes, let's go to Kentucky."
Darby Dan's Derby record is impressive: in 1963 Chateaugay won and paid $20.80; in 1967 Proud Clarion took the roses and paid $62.20; in 1974 Little Current was blocked in a 23-horse field and finished fifth at 22 to 1, but came back two weeks later to win the Preakness, paying $28.20, then won the Belmont by seven lengths. The only real failures that Galbreath has had in Louisville were Prince Thou Art and Sylvan Place, who ran sixth and ninth two years ago.
But Sanhedrin is certainly not yet vintage Darby Dan. Although he made up ground on Seattle Slew in the Wood, he still was beaten 3¼ lengths, and he has yet to win a race in five 1977 starts.
In Chicago last Saturday another owner decided to ship to Louisville. The Nasty (yep) Stable's Flag Officer moved from last place in an 11-horse field to win the $104,925 Illinois Derby by 3¼ lengths. The performance of the son of Hoist the Flag-Batteur was promising, though the colt took 1:52[1/5] to win the nine-furlong race, the slowest time in 11 runnings.
Seattle Slew won the Wood, which also is a nine-furlong event, in 1:49⅗ some 13 lengths slower than Riva Ridge's track record of 1:47, as well as 11 lengths slower than Bold Forbes' romping victory last year. However, the track Seattle Slew ran over is far different from the one Bold Forbes handled so easily. Winter and spring racing at Aqueduct has been held over an inner track, designed for severe weather conditions. The main track was shut down last November. Before it could be used again, parts had to be rebuilt. Since then only a handful of races have been held on the main track, and just two at nine furlongs. On Saturday the Wood was the only event run on the main track, so time comparisons cannot be made to measure Slew's victory.
"I walked the track," said Billy Turner, his trainer, "and I knew that a horse wouldn't hurt himself racing on it." The track was dead and cuppy—it had no spring and the ground would break from under the horses. Certainly Slew could not run as fast on it as he had when winning the Flamingo at Hialeah. But he did not figure to be hard pressed.
His opponents had started 82 times and won just 18 races. Only Fratello Ed and Papelote took two in a row, and Papelote's back-to-back victories were in Puerto Rico. Fratello Ed won two stakes, but they were events restricted to New York-breds. The only other stakes horse was Catalan, who had scored narrowly in a midwinter event at Aqueduct.
Not surprisingly, Seattle Slew was sent to the gate as the 1-to-10 favorite. He went into the lead immediately, but for the first time ever was challenged, Fratello Ed moving alongside on the backstretch and actually poking his head in front at one point. But Jockey Jean Cruguet relaxed his hold on Slew and he pulled off to a six-length lead at the top of the stretch. Fratello Ed finished a weary fifth.
Sanhedrin closed in the last eighth of a mile and finished nearer Slew than any horse has to date. "My colt ran well," Angel Cordero said of the Darby Dan runner, "but Seattle Slew is like a boxer who never gets hit hard. You've got to wonder what will happen when someone throws hard punches at him."
Secretariat was knocked out for the first time as a 3-year-old in the Wood, finishing third that day to Angle Light. Traditionally, the race draws a fine field, and in the last two years it served as a major prep for Derby winners Bold Forbes and Foolish Pleasure. But Slew's toughest potential foes, Clev Er Tell (winner of the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies) and Cormorant (victor in six of seven races) dropped out in the days preceding the Wood. Clev Er Tell fractured his knee in his final workout, and Cormorant developed a fever. He will not face Slew until the Preakness.
Even with minor competition, Turner said the Wood was an excellent prep for his colt. "He needed it," the young trainer said. "The Flamingo was too easy. He hardly worked enough to get wet. He cooled out in 10 minutes."
Neither of the last two undefeated colts to start in the Derby—Majestic Prince and Native Dancer—had such an easy time of it before Churchill Downs. They had been harder pressed by their rivals, though Majestic Prince had won seven straight by Derby Day and Native Dancer 11. Majestic Prince started five times as a 3-year-old before winning his Derby; Native Dancer ran only twice before finishing second to Dark Star.
A Derby favorite always puts pressure on those around him, and an undefeated Derby favorite magnifies it. But Turner, Slew's owner, Karen Taylor, her husband Mickey and veterinarian/advisor Jim Hill are a well-organized team and have plotted their approach carefully. Among other things they have studied the charts of previous Derbies—how they were run and how horses were brought up to the race.
"Around the racetrack," says Turner, "you sure can get a lot of advice. I really was worried about Slew before his first start this year. Many good 2-year-olds lose something when they turn three, and until Slew ran I was apprehensive. I've talked to a lot of people about how to bring a horse up to a Derby, because I've never had a Derby starter. The man who has helped the most is Woody Stephens, who trained Cannonade in 1974. Woody has been down the Derby road many times. I believe in what Horatio Luro called the 'Old Lemon Theory'—you don't squeeze the lemon too hard too early or there won't be any juice left when you need it."
As a 2-year-old Seattle Slew won three times in 27 days, stepping up from a six-furlong maiden race to win the $137,250 Champagne Stakes at a mile. "Although the colt was nominated to several later stakes," says Turner, "we decided to stop him after the Champagne and aim at the Triple Crown races. Sure, we could have picked up more money, but we decided the best way was the slow way." Slew won only $94,350, while being named the outstanding 2-year-old, but he has added $160,990 so far this year. On an investment of $17,500 (the Taylors purchased him at a Kentucky yearling auction), that is splendid. But the big money lies in the three races directly ahead. These are the weeks when the squeeze will be on trainer and horse.
Turner might have been painted by Norman Rockwell. He is tall, thin and rubs his hands together so often one expects them to burst into flames. As a trivia player he has master points. "What very great horse finished next to last in six of his races?" Turner asked a coterie of reporters one day last week. The newsmen hemmed and hawed. "Man o'War," said Turner. "Only one horse faced him on six occasions and he won each time. That's next to last." Turner tried another: "War Admiral and Count Fleet won the Triple Crown, and they have something in common with Seattle Slew," he said. "The silks of all three are black and yellow."
For someone so successful Turner has a peculiar attitude about winner's circles. "I didn't go to the winner's circle when I won my first race," he says, "because I expected the horse to win and it was nothing special. But sometimes I'll go—if the winner has had problems or is a tremendous longshot."
For four or five years Turner was a steeplechase rider; he had only modest success. "It isn't all that tough," he says. "The falling off part isn't too bad, it's hitting the ground that hurts. I had broken ribs and collarbones, things like that. But you can tape up a broken collarbone and ride with it."
Turner received his training apprenticeship from W. Burling Cocks, a leading jumping trainer. "Burley is a perfectionist," Turner says. "No matter what you did, you seldom did it right. There was always something else that could be done to make things better, and he let you know it. There weren't easy ways out. Because of that, he helped me tremendously. I'm grateful."
In 1969 Turner was training for Robert E. Lehmann, and among his 2-year-olds was Dust Commander, the winner of the next year's Derby. "We had a lot of 2-year-olds," Turner says, "and won seven maiden races with them by July. There was a great deal of pressure to win. I guess I didn't win enough for Mr. Lehmann, because he took the horses away. I watched Dust Commander win the Derby at home on television. I've felt better in my life."
In a sense, then, Billy Turner, at 36, has already trained one Derby winner. He figures to have a second one.