Luck is an odd thing. People sometimes say, "I'd rather be lucky than good anytime," but they don't mean it. For to credit luck—as in being born under a lucky star or with a silver spoon in your mouth—is somehow to discredit one's own abilities. Who wants to do that? So to praise a person for his luck has come to be condescending, a kind of backhanded compliment, even a catty affirmation that, sadly, talent doesn't count for everything.
Nevertheless, meet Mickey Lucky, one of the four owners (all in their 30s) of Seattle Slew. Slew is a racehorse of great and perhaps wondrous abilities—and has had some luck himself—who tries Saturday in the Belmont Stakes to become the first undefeated thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown. O.K., Mickey's birth certificate does say his last name is Taylor, but hospitals make mistakes.
Mickey subscribes to the theory that "the harder I work, the luckier I get." He is a diligent man with a keen, even exceptional, eye for business. But Dame Fortune has called on him so often over the years that he now lists her as a dependent on his income tax return. He has to. About five years ago she moved in with Mick and his wife Karen, in their cream and brown trailer in White Swan. Wash. That week Mickey went to a Los Angeles track and bet on an 80-to-1 shot. The big favorite in the race acted up in the starting gate and was scratched; Mickey's pick won and returned $62,000 to Taylor. Says Mickey, "I made my score, wrapped up my horns and stopped gambling." Hello, Lucky.
To get to White Swan, it is necessary to drive to nowhere, then turn right. The town of 220 is located in the heart of the Yakima Indian Reservation. The main points of interest are the sagebrush and the Texaco station. All of which proves anew that you don't need a huge launching pad and bright lights to become a shooting star. The Taylors have swept across the country and stunned the staid racing community in the East, which believes if you're not a Vanderbilt or a Whitney, or at least very comfortable breaking bread with them, then you probably don't belong in the big time.
June 12, 1977
In truth, Mickey Taylor, a logger and a son of a logger, can appear out of place. He wears cowboy boots, and when made to put on a tie, looks like a little boy forced to dress up for Sunday School. Karen is the former airline stew whose eyes can be seen lighting up TV screens nightly as she rhapsodizes on Slew. Together they produce the appearance of Jet Set glamour and ail-American whole-someness. They belong in a Norman Rockwell painting. Get a frame.
Sharing in the good fortune, if not in the publicity, and very much belonging in a Rockwell work themselves, are co-owners Dr. and Mrs. Jim Hill of Garden City, L.I. To get to Garden City, drive to Manhattan and call a cab. Hill, the son of a Florida rancher and sometime shrimper, is the veterinarian who pointed to Slew and insisted to Mickey Taylor that the colt was worth $17,500. Slew's price is now $10 million, give or take a few million. Hello, Lucky. Sally Hill, who describes herself as the one among the four who "comes late and leaves early," is the chief party-giver.
And that is important. For the Taylors, the Hills and an army of friends are laughing and partying like there's no tomorrow. Mickey stumbled out the other morning after an especially gratifying evening and muttered, "Did any of you get the license number of that Jack Daniel's bottle that ran over me?" A friend said he didn't happen to and went on to lament, "I got back to the hotel and threw my clothes all over the room." Said Mickey, "So did I, only I was still wearing them."
As Slew started his blitz this season, it was widely assumed that Karen Taylor was the sole owner. After all, it said so in racing programs and in all the stories. And Karen is adept at playing the press like a piano, seldom hitting discords. "Working for the airlines got me used to being hassled," she says. Then it started dawning on people that Mickey was more than the owner's husband, and so by Kentucky Derby time he was sharing equal billing with Karen in conversations around the barns.
Meanwhile, the Hills were always in evidence. But he was viewed simply as the vet, she as the vet's wife. Asked at Hialeah several months ago what was wrong with Slew that required his constant presence, Hill said, "It's not what's wrong, it's what's right." Nobody understood, but everyone smiled. By Preakness time it was becoming clear what was right was that the Hills owned Slew, too. The press had trouble with this. In one article, Hill was referred to as Dr. Jim Smith; in another, Sally was called Barbara. With no rancor, Hill observed that a Louisville paper, in 26 pages of Derby coverage, mentioned him once: "It only bothers me because Slew may be one of the great horses of all time and I'll just be known as the vet."
Today each of the four has a definite role: Karen is the PR person, the bright and earnest interview who can always give television 30 cheery seconds; Mickey is the business brain; Hill is in charge of Slew's health; and Sally is emerging as a marketing pro (that's her profession) who will have much to say in the days ahead as SS goes commercial. But, Sally admits, "Jim and Mickey have one tremendous talent—ignoring Karen and me." Amid all the hoopla, Mickey observes, "If you can't enjoy this, there's something wrong with you." Still, it was left to Hill to remind the group of this fact the other day when confusion was mounting and tempers were fraying. "Hey, we have to stop and enjoy this," he said. "The four of us are so lucky to walk this way." There's that word again.
While the four of them are equal owners (Slew belongs to their corporation but, because of New York's rules of racing, must run in just one person's name), Mickey is largely responsible for all that has happened. In 1972 he bought a logging company in White Swan whose two previous owners had gone bankrupt. The equipment was studied by experts and classified as junk. But as Oscar Heglar, a Taylor employee at the company, says, "They didn't know that Mickey can make anything run with a piece of wire and a wooden plug."
Taylor was trying to scrape out an existence by dealing in pulp, the poorest wood left over after boards are made out of the good stuff. It was costing him about $40 per 1,000 board feet and he was selling it for $45. Because other loggers didn't want to mess with pulp for this small return, Mickey collected a bunch of it. "People really thought I was goofy," says Taylor. At which time the great paper shortage hit, pulp suddenly was in huge demand, and in a little more than a month, Taylor unloaded around 16 million board feet—at an average of $130 per 1,000. Did he buy up a lot of pulp because he saw the paper shortage coming? "Nope." Hello, Lucky.
It was also in this period that a storm hit the area, blowing down thousands of trees. The federal government estimated there might be 2.5 million board feet and Mickey purchased the rights to it, or whatever turned out to be there. The total ultimately was 11 million board feet. Fortunate. With a few extra dollars in his jeans, Mickey responded to Karen's urging that he buy her a horse. She had in mind a saddle horse, that being the only thing her parents can remember denying her as a youngster growing up in Yakima. (When she was four, they gave her an Irish setter; she promptly named him Pony.) But Mickey had in mind a horse that might be good for something more than sticking his head in the feed bucket. He bought a $5,000 filly, who never made it to the races.
But also during this time he told a local vet, Dr. Bob Penney, that he would like to spend up to $75,000 on a thoroughbred. Penney said the way to do this would be to contact Jim Hill, who knew the good horses in New York and who could therefore make reasoned recommendations. Soon, thanks to Hill, Taylor did own some good ones, including Triangular, which had not been racing well. But once in Mickey's stable, he reeled off four straight wins. There was also Lexington Laugh, purchased for $16,000, for whom the Taylors subsequently were offered $175,000. They held out for $185,000. The next day the horse was hurt and had to be put down. Says Mickey, "That was our first real oops."
Not many oops have marred the Taylors' ventures in racing since, largely because Mickey doesn't let his heart overrule his head. "The first time something bad happens, it's experience," he says. "The second time, it's stupidity." Friends and acquaintances look at Mickey with awe, and Taylor says, "If I have a strong point, it's that I can put the right crew together to get something done." Chet Stingley, another employee back at the logging shop, says, "Mickey has guts. If you say he can't do it, he'll do it." On the day the Taylors and Hills bought Slew (one of 13 horses Mickey deemed worthy of purchase in 1975), it was so rainy that the portable toilets at Lexington's Fasig-Tipton sale were floating away. Predictably, the rain was lucky for Mickey and some others, for potential bidders stayed away in droves. So ecstatic was Hill over Slew that the group was ready to bid much higher than $17,500. Why was the colt such a bargain? Hill says it was partly because Slew's pedigree "doesn't knock your eyes out," and there is the matter of—whisper, please—the slew foot. Naturally, with breeding uppermost in all minds, Hill blanches at any discussion of what he calls a "slight outward deviation" of the right fore. And they insist that the Slew in the name has nothing to do with the slew in the foot. Mickey says they toyed with Seattle Swamp, which didn't seem too majestic, then Seattle Slough before settling on Seattle Slew. Hill also admits the horse was clumsy as a yearling (this prompted Trainer Billy Turner to observe that at least Slew could pull a milk truck), his feet were too big and he ran like a kangaroo, putting extraordinary strain on his fragile front legs. So there were plenty of reasons for others to keep their money in their pockets.
Despite only three outings, Slew was named the top 2-year-old last year. To get ready for his frantic 3-year-old season, the Hills and Taylors went sailing among the Virgin Islands in January, dreaming and planning, in a chartered 42-foot boat powered by the Caribbean winds, their hopes fueled by Bombay gin. Actually, Karen's hopes were fueled more by Dramamine, since she was terribly seasick. Washington apples, which the Taylors believe can head off seasickness, were aboard but didn't seem to work.
But Karen is used to adversity. She spent seven years chasing Mickey, after she discovered him as a basketball star at Ellensburg (Wash.) High School. He was known as "Baby Legs" because of a heavily taped right thigh, which a friend, Tim Weaver, says was "really painful when he shot 60 times and only got 15 points." Twice she was in car wrecks with Mickey, including one that damaged his left leg so badly that all of the 32 basketball scholarships offered him were withdrawn. The accidents also put dents in Karen. And she had to suffer riding in his 1961 blue Ford Starliner, which often had the garter of one of Mick's former girl friends hanging on the rearview mirror.
Married to him since 1970, Karen says, "Let's face it. I have spent 14 years of my life trying to please Mickey." He's not always easily pleased. Not too much should be read into the fact that he arranged to be married on April Fool's Day. Or that the ceremony was performed by Judge Love. A romantic, Mickey is not. (He sent his sister-in-law, Diana Taylor, to purchase Karen's wedding ring. Karen didn't like it and picked another.)
Once in a blizzard in the Cascades, Mickey and Karen were snowbound in separate vehicles. Mickey got out but Karen didn't. No matter. Mickey drove off down the road, called back on the CB and said, "Well, Karen, every man for himself. I'm going home." He did. When Mickey would deem it appropriate for Karen to visit him at a logging camp during their courtship, she would go out by the road, green suitcase in hand, and hitch a ride in a logging truck. She returned home the same way. Says Karen, whose father is a Yakima accountant and whose mother runs a 60-acre apple and pear orchard, "I was impressed with his cowboy boots and his rough way of life."
She followed him from college to college. While he was at Western Washington State, he lived with friends in a shack on Lake Samish with floors that sloped so much the beer cans would roll out the front door. Conveniently, that fit their life-style. Karen showed up on weekends to clean, and a former next-door neighbor, Nancy Ringler, now of Costa Mesa, Calif., says, "They were just super neighbors, if you didn't mind noise and parties 24 hours a day, which we certainly didn't."
In her scheming to trap Mickey, Karen became a stewardess after she decided he might like her more if she would fly away to fun places, then come home. It didn't work that way. She now says Mickey liked it "only because he thought it would be wonderful for me to learn to treat him like a first-class passenger."
She would also drive a Jeep so Mickey and a friend could sit on the fenders and shoot chipmunks, not because she wanted to but because Mickey wouldn't let her come along if she didn't do something useful. Later, he gave her the job of driving a water truck to keep the dust down on the logging roads, an assignment whose hours were 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. Karen admits that Mickey is still schooling her. "Once or twice a year he gives me a lecture on how I can be a better wife."
Undeniably, Mickey Taylor is a free spirit who does things his way and plays by his rules. He can be wonderfully charming and horribly distant. "I can love him and hate him inside five minutes," says his mother-in-law, Ellen Pearson. Twice he brought her Christmas trees, the second even uglier than the first and thoroughly burned by truck exhaust. Says Mrs. Pearson, "I knew there were beautiful things in the woods but Mickey Taylor certainly couldn't find them."
As a youth, Mickey was something of a hell raiser. There was a night at The Tav in Ellensburg when he was flipping matches and the grass skirt of a go-go girl caught on fire. "It was no big deal," says Mickey, "until the police came." Once he was stopped for speeding, and having no license solved the problem by giving the arresting officer the name of his brother, Quirt, who subsequently paid the fine.
A few years ago Mickey was driving a huge piece of equipment that was spreading rocks on a logging road. The machinery went over the side and Taylor leaped off—right into a tree. That knocked him back onto the machinery. When the dust cleared, there was a pile of iron at the bottom of a canyon, but Mickey didn't make the full trip and suffered only a broken leg. "I was lucky," says Mickey. While on the mend, he went through seven casts, including one damaged while snowmobiling. Says a friend and employee, Harold Hunter, "Mickey just isn't satisfied with doing things the ordinary way."
Life is now changing for Taylor. "For being a loner all of my life," he says, "I've sure got a lot of friends all of a sudden." Karen says, "He's a logger. He's really just used to talking to the trees." At the Derby, the Hills and Taylors were host to 110 friends and relatives from 34 states; for the Belmont, the number will top 200.
Yet for all the excitement, the centerpiece of the saga, Seattle Slew, strangely lacks charisma. It's as if all he can do is run. And, some critics have suggested, maybe not even that. Here are several theories as to why his popularity is no match for Secretariat's:
Jim Hill says that while Secretariat was a son of Bold Ruler, Slew is only a grandson. Others contend that while Secretariat was big and red and gorgeous, Slew is just an average-looking brown. Perhaps it's because Slew's owners come from outside the racing fraternity and there is resentment that they have a big winner in just a few years. Also, Slew has raced only eight times and the company he has beaten has appeared unimpressive. Jockey Jean Cruguet's ability has been questioned, and there are people who think that had Steve Cauthen or Willie Shoemaker been the rider, interest would have burgeoned. Slew doesn't always set records and, indeed, doesn't always perform in eye-catching time. Perhaps it's too soon after Secretariat for another horse to capture the public's fancy. Maybe Slew's name just doesn't smack of greatness. And maybe all this is fast being taken care of and a Belmont victory will do the trick. Certainly, if he continues to race, the mystique will grow as long as he remains undefeated.
The possibility of defeat remains always a bump or a bad step away, which is why the Taylors and Hills remind each other before each race, "Keep smiling and no excuses." Says Hill, "That's what we'll do until we can get to the nearest building and jump off." For good reason. The money involved is enormous. Not the $608,000 Slew has won racing; that's really only expense and bar money. It's what's beyond. And while the owners say they plan to race Slew as a 4-year-old, that seems chancy. For if something should happen to the horse—as it did to Ruffian—the loss would be incalculable.
If the Hills and Taylors keep Slew rather than syndicate him, they can count on breeding him to at least 40 mares a year for about $100,000 each. If he produces 30 live foals, that would bring in $3 million a year. The money would be assured for five years, until it can be proved at the races how good Slew's offspring are. If they are excellent, the stud fee would increase; if poor, the fee would decrease. Meanwhile there is intense pressure. One racing expert says that if Slew loses the Belmont, his worth at stud could drop to about $30,000 per service. "Whatever happens," says Mickey, "Slew has guaranteed our lives."
Thus far, the Taylors seem largely unimpressed with the boxcar numbers. "I like money," says Mickey, "because that's the way you keep score. But all I want is my cowboy boots, a shirt, jeans and a coat for winter." Karen had been driving a pickup truck, but her grandmother felt it wasn't right for the owner of Seattle Slew to have such shabby transportation. So she gave Karen a new car. Rather, a new car for Karen. It's a 1967 white Mercury with 84,663 miles on it. Despite his country-boy oratory, Mickey is driving a leased Cadillac around the East. He got thoroughly lost in it in Baltimore after the Preakness. He finally drove into a fire station, hopped out and extended his hand to a bewildered fireman. "Hi, I'm the owner of Seattle Slew," he said. "I'll give you 50 Slew bumper stickers if you'll tell me how to get out of here."
So the laughter goes on. Somebody recalls the time the phone rang at the Hill house and a caller, not knowing that Jim is strictly a racehorse vet, told Sally tearfully that "my turtle's eyes are swollen shut." Sally asked Jim what to do and he said, "Flush him down the toilet and buy another turtle." Which really underlines what the Hills and Taylors know well. They very likely will never be able to find and buy another Seattle Slew, and so it's important to live these days to the hilt. Nobody can accuse Mickey Lucky & Co. of doing any less.