When the gates opened for the Kentucky Derby last Saturday, on the most important afternoon of his young and undefeated life, Seattle Slew stood flat-footed. More money ($1,059,257) was bet on his dark bay nose than on that of any starter in the 102 previous Derbies, and for an instant all seemed lost as Slew stumbled out of his stall with 12 of 14 opponents ahead of him. Then Seattle flew, bulling his way between horses, even knocking Bob's Dusty aside in his eagerness, and within a quarter of a mile (see cover) he was dueling with the front-running For The Moment.
First one colt led, then the other, as they curled around the clubhouse turn. Jockey Angel Cordero on For The Moment was using virtually the same tactics that had served him so well in the 1976 Derby, when he beat Honest Pleasure with Bold Forbes. He had his colt on the rail and was keeping Jean Cruguet on Seattle Slew on the outside. At the end of six furlongs of the 1-mile race, For The Moment was a length in front in the brisk time of 1:10⅗ but once more Seattle Slew rolled alongside. "I saw Slew throw up his head and put out his tail and I thought he was all through," said Bill O'Neill, who trains Get The Axe, the colt that would finish fourth. "Turns out he was just starting." Seattle Slew took the lead for good as he turned for home, increasing the margin to three lengths in the stretch. As For The Moment wearied (he would falter to eighth), Run Dusty Run and Sanhedrin challenged. Cruguet stung his undefeated colt with the whip, striking him eight or nine times, and he passed the finish line 1¾ lengths ahead of Run Dusty Run and another neck in front of Sanhedrin. It was an impressive performance—but just how impressive? Did it indicate that Slew is good enough to become the 10th Triple Crown winner?
Smiley Adams, the trainer of Run Dusty Run, said, "You sure can't say Seattle Slew won easily. I believe he can be beat and that my horse is the one to do it. Run Dusty Run was getting to him in the stretch pretty good. Everybody could see that. It was a good race for us considering Run Dusty Run was a bad fourth at one time." When Adams was asked how it felt to finish second in the Derby, he replied, "Not worth a damn."
Lou Rondinello, the trainer of Sanhedrin, said, "I don't think Seattle Slew is that great. I think maybe it's just that the opposition we've been able to provide hasn't been that good. But I'm not done with Seattle Slew yet. We'll see this through, for sure. I think the distance of the Belmont will suit my horse better."
Seattle Slew now has won seven straight. The Daily Racing Form has described these victories in phrases such as "easy score," "handily" and "in hand." His winning margin at Churchill Downs was his shortest yet, but the Form did not consider him truly threatened. The race record will note Seattle Slew was "ridden out." In other words, Cruguet was taking no chances, but the colt was not under a relentless drive. The time, a moderate 2:02⅕ does not compare favorably with Secretariat's record Derby clocking of 1:59⅖ but it was faster than the Derbies won by Triple Crown winners Count Fleet and War Admiral. So the dispute over just how good the son of Bold Reasoning is remains to be settled in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Certainly Seattle Slew was impressive, encountering trouble—and triumphing despite it—from the time he came onto the Churchill Downs track and made his way to the hot, tiny paddock under the stands. Each starter was trailed by a retinue while walking past the clubhouse to the gap that leads to the paddock. At times the horses seemed lost among the dozens of people surrounding them on the track. Photographers, in particular, pressed in on Slew. He was plainly edgy and became even more so as a band struck up the national anthem. By the time the colt was saddled and paraded with the field, as 124,038 (the fourth-largest crowd in Derby history) sang My Old Kentucky Home, he was washy. He struggled to get free from his stable pony. And then, because of the draw (he broke from the No. 4 post), he was loaded into the gate early and had to stand there for some two minutes before the rest of the large field was in place. Seattle Slew went through all that, then contended with more trouble than any other horse in the race, and still won.
The Derby proved he is versatile. In his previous starts he had been the front-runner, raising the question of whether he was too headstrong to run behind horses. After checking the colt for soundness following the Derby, Trainer Billy Turner said, "There goes the myth about his being impossible to rate. He can be rated, as we have said all along.
"When Slew was behind For The Moment by a little more than a length, I said to myself, 'He isn't running like himself. He's going nowhere today. He's going to be beaten.' At one stage I thought he was running as far back as fourth." (Turner often stretches dull truth to make a conversation livelier.)
The 37-year-old trainer claims he saw the race on television in the grandstand. Owner Karen Taylor, who watched from a third-floor box with her husband Mickey, did not stretch the truth at all when asked how the race had looked to her. "It was a wonderful blur," she replied. "The binoculars trembled in my hands so much I couldn't see. It was both the shortest two minutes of my life and the longest."
Two hours after the Derby, Mickey Taylor walked up the track to his horse's barn. Alongside was Dr. Jim Hill, the young veterinarian who had selected Seattle Slew from among hundreds in the 1975 Fasig-Tipton summer sale. The Taylors bought the colt for $17,500. "The Derby was a tough race because of the trouble in the paddock," said Taylor. "It was like the Ringling Brothers' circus. But Slew got the job done and so did Billy Turner. He's a great horseman. We heard people knock Billy for the way he was training the horse. They'd say, 'What's he going to do, walk him into the race?' "
Some racetrackers felt that Turner was going too easy on the colt by giving him only short workouts. "Seattle Slew won't be a short horse," Trainer Woody Stephens said the morning of the Derby. "Turner is a jumping-horse man and they don't send out short horses. He's been galloping that colt for two miles for a longtime."
The Slew crew, for all its inexperience (the Taylors have owned thoroughbreds for just four years), was organized. "It might seem that we don't know what we're doing, but we do," Turner said. "We haven't panicked. Mickey Taylor is one of the brightest men you could meet."
No matter how great the aggravation, good humor prevailed at the stable. "We had a party for 96 people the night before the Derby," Turner said. "I was able to get into it only because I'm thin and could slide in sideways." Their guests were stashed in different hotels throughout Louisville and a tour guide and a bus were on hand to get all the friends to the festivities and parties. Members of the Seattle Slew entourage wore yellow labels stuck on their chests so that they might recognize each other at functions, and their campers and cars bore Seattle Slew bumper stickers, which Karen Taylor had printed up.
No other colt drew so many rooters, and deservedly so. There was no California champion to set up an East-West battle, and the winners of the Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies were absent. While consistent performers like Run Dusty Run and For The Moment were present, there were no classy ones. It seemed that second and third money ($30,000 and $15,000) rather than the hope of taking the wreath of roses had attracted most of the field.
Ten of the 15 starters had never won a race beyond 1[1/16] miles. Sanhedrin had not won since Sept. 3, Get The Axe since Oct. 1, Sir Sir since Dec. 11. Bob's Dusty had just one victory since Nov. 10 and Papelote had none at all in the U.S. since arriving from Puerto Rico in February. The betting was the best indicator of the quality of the field. Seven starters were sent off at odds ranging from 27 to 1 to 46 to 1 and the three-horse "field" was listed at 42 to 1, the biggest price since Red Hot Pistol and Benedicto ran combined against Tim Tarn in 1958. Run Dusty Run was made second choice at nearly 6 to 1, For The Moment was the third choice at 7 to 1 and Sanhedrin was next at 14 to 1. Form, what little there was of it, held up.
LeRoy Jolley, who trains For The Moment, said before the Derby, "Seattle Slew is a heck of a horse, so nobody's going to have fun running against him. But it's going to be a good race. I think some challenges will be mounted against him." Jolley, for one, was willing to send his colt head-to-head with Slew.
There was speculation that Jean Cruguet could get Slew beaten, though the field was weak, but the jockey deserves only praise for his Derby ride. "I was confident before the race and during it," he said while sipping champagne. "This winter in Florida I was thrown and broke my collarbone. Some people said I wouldn't be back in time to ride Seattle Slew in the races leading up to the Derby, but I knew I would. Nothing was going to stop me." It wasn't just Cruguet's injury that concerned people. He is considered a fine grass rider but occasionally shows poor judgment.
In fact, Cruguet, like Turner, had done his homework. He had the colt in front at the top of the stretch, and the record book shows that horses in the lead at the top of the stretch have finished first in 13 of the last 15 Derbies.
In the jockeys' room following the race, Jorge Velasquez, the rider of Sanhedrin, was saying, "I thought I would win at the top of the stretch." Just then Cruguet entered the room. "You thought so," Cruguet said, "but you didn't." Velasquez smiled broadly. "I getcha. I getcha. I getcha in the Belmont."
That remains to be seen. Sanhedrin will rest until the Belmont. Meanwhile, Seattle Slew will start in the Preakness. Run Dusty Run may try Slew again, though he now has a string of four second-place finishes. But some fresh, swift runners also will be on hand. This Saturday's Preakness Prep may match J. O. Tobin, the 1976 2-year-old champion of England, and Cormorant, who won three stakes this season before contracting a virus. Last week Cormorant worked five furlongs over a deep track at Laurel in :58 and galloped out six furlongs in 1:11[2/5]. "It was the greatest work I have ever seen," says Dick Dutrow, one of the top trainers in Maryland. "Four years ago I saw Ron Turcotte work Secretariat at Pimlico the Sunday before the Preakness. He went six furlongs in 1:10. The way he was moving I didn't think a horse could run that fast. Now I have to say Cormorant's work was better."
Two weeks ago J. O. Tobin won the $44,450 Coronado Handicap at Hollywood Park in his second start in this country. His time for the mile was a swift 1:34⅖ which was just [2/5] of a second off the track record.
The Taylors, Turners, Hills and Slew crew have started down the longest road in racing in fine shape, but trouble could lie ahead. Two months ago, Karen and Mickey Taylor had considered how Derby Day might turn out. At the time they were standing in the stable area at Hialeah as Slew was being prepared by Turner for his first start of the season. "I don't know if I'm ready for the long spring that leads to Louisville," Mickey Taylor said, "but I'm more than willing to try. Getting to the Kentucky Derby involves a lot of work."
But it surely can be profitable. Karen Taylor has collected $376,000 in purse money along the way and clippings and souvenirs she'll have for the rest of her life. She bought a stack of programs as keepsakes last Saturday and, as is her custom, five $2-win tickets on Slew. She has win tickets for each of his races, which she says she will never cash. It would be nice to have the Triple Crown trophy to put them in.