Enter a horse, stage left. He is nameless, and only the number 128 pasted on his hip gives him identity. It is a rainy Saturday evening in Lexington, Ky. and the brown is about to be sold, one of 4,918 yearlings put up for auction in 1975. A sales company employee has inspected the colt. His report is frank and confidential: "Well above average in size, shiny coat, bright, alert...not the most handsome individual around the head but a well-developed shoulder...a good spring of ribs (lots of room for heart and lungs)...he is, in truth, out in the right foreleg...unlikely to impede a racing career...free of worms."
The bidding starts at $3,000, then climbs in increments of $500 to $7,000. After only 19 bids, the gavel of the Fasig-Tipton auctioneer comes down at $17,500. A stopwatch shows it has taken only 90 seconds to sell the son of Bold Reasoning and My Charmer. Nobody knows that this will be Seattle Slew, a thoroughbred who will dominate his crop as Man o'War, Count Fleet, Citation, Native Dancer and Secretariat did theirs. Nobody knows that this colt will become a Triple Crown winner—the only undefeated one and the only one ever sold at public auction.
The drama of Seattle Slew has received feature billing for months, the road company winning raves as it moved through Florida, Kentucky and Maryland on its way to the colt's grandest triumph last Saturday in the $181,800 Belmont Stakes. He now is 9-for-9 and has his Triple Crown. Wealthy Texans are clamoring to buy him, with one reported offer of $14 million. Now his head looks handsome indeed, and his leg pretty straight. He's a dream horse—and not just for his owners, Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill.
Swells clogged center stage in the Belmont paddock as the field was saddled for the mile-and-one-half classic. Standing alone in the wings was Alfred Vanderbilt, who a quarter of a century before raced that marvelous gray, Native Dancer, winner of 21 of 22 starts. "I've lived with a fantasy ever since." Vanderbilt said. "It is there every morning when I wake and every night when I sleep. Native Dancer was beaten in the Kentucky Derby. In my fantasy I put the horse that beat him in the stall right next door. I see a shedrow of champions and those who defeated them. Dark Star side by side with Native Dancer, Upset with Man o'War.... Sooner or later all horses get beat, so you should have the extra stall ready. Slew could be beaten today or the next time out. But I hope the young people who own him don't have that stall and never need one."
June 19, 1977
Vanderbilt smiled. "When great horses come along, they make you dream all sorts of dreams," he said. One can only wonder about the fantasies of the Taylors and the Hills, who in 22 months have seen the value of their Lexington purchase increase some 8,000-fold. Conservatively, the horse is worth $12 million, which is just about twice what Secretariat was priced at four years ago. If Slew had lost the Belmont, the figure would be far different. His market value would have been cut in half.
Though Slew has never been ballyhooed like Secretariat, 70,229 showed up to see him win the final leg of the Triple Crown on a dank, wind-whipped day, which was more than the 67,605 Secretariat drew to the same classic in 1973.
Slew smothered the Belmont field so completely, leading from start to finish, that his seven opponents looked as if they were running in place. Run Dusty Run challenged early in the backstretch hut Slew just moved out a notch. A half-mile later Sanhedrin made a bid, but for naught. Slew drew away as he headed home. A few jumps before the winning post. Jockey Jean Cruguet, once a $20-a-month bartender in the French army, stood high in his stirrups and waved his whip to the crowd in jubilation. It was a bizarre gesture, one that will be recalled whenever people talk about horses or those who ride them.
Slew won by four lengths. His trainer, 37-year-old Billy Turner, called it "the easiest race of his career." Run Dusty Run was second and Sanhedrin finished 2¼ lengths back in third.
The track was listed as muddy, but Belmont's racing surface dries quickly in a wind like the one that blew on Saturday. By post time the going was wet-fast. Slew handled it with ease, taking an almost casual 2:29[3/5] to roll to his triumph.
On a rainy morning three days before, Cruguet declared, "Slew will win. Of this I have no doubt, no concern. He is growing now, becoming a man. Every day he learns more. He is a relaxed horse; he knows who he is. People ask why doesn't he win by more lengths, why doesn't he set track records every time he runs? People say Jean Cruguet is a dummy. I know that. I read. I hear. When you ride in France, as I did, you learn not to win races by a lot, because if you do the handicapper will pile weight on your horse. I have said all along that we really haven't seen how good Seattle Slew is. There should be no great mystery about the Belmont. He will come out of the gate and, boom! We will be on the lead. Nobody can run with him. The horses that have tried got burned. He will run well enough to win. No records. Just win. Maybe you will not see all of Seattle Slew in the Belmont. We do not really know how much of the all there is."
Cruguet had a spectacular Belmont week. Riding only 11 horses, he won eight races, picking up almost $200,000 in purses. If he seemed cocky for his high-flying finish on Saturday, he had been cautious earlier. He took no mounts on Tuesday afternoon so that he could not possibly be hit by a suspension that might have cost him the ride on Slew. And he grounded himself for two days before the Belmont so that he could rest and avoid any possibility of injury.
There is an old saying around the track that "It is not what the people do to the horses that is interesting, it's what the Horses do to the people." Cruguet is suddenly savvy and riding superbly. He scored with four of his six mounts on Belmont day, including the 42-to-1 Road Princess in the Mother Goose Stakes.
Then there is Turner, who finds himself a celebrated horseman. He has taught Slew, a strong-willed animal, to move from race to race and track to track as sprightly as a squirrel going from limb to limb. If sportswriters have suggested that Turner trains his horse from Esposito's Tavern, which is close by the Belmont stable gate, it is simply because that cool, hospitable place is a nice backdrop for Turner to play out his part. In the weeks preceding the race, Seattle Slew bumper stickers were pasted behind the bar, and the picket fence outside was painted yellow and black in Slew's honor.
Turner first went to Esposito's as a young steeplechase rider. He was having difficulty getting mounts and soon became known as Turnpike Turner for his willingness to answer calls of trainers coming into the bar. Could he ride in Jersey tomorrow? In Delaware? In Maryland? Turner would jump in his car and go off to compete. He always returned, and he was there after the Belmont.
Before Turner arrived on Saturday night, a greeting card was passed around the bar for people to sign. When opened, a bird popped out and the greeting read, "Thank you for doing something to crow about." When Turner received the card, which had been signed by at least 100 people, he said. "I will remember this more than all the trophies."
After being bought at auction, Slew was sent to Turners farm in Maryland, where his wife Paula started breaking the colt. "He was funny looking." Paula says. "Didn't look like a racehorse at all. There was a piece of him here and a piece of him there. He had a big body and a big head and a little pony's tail. His mind hadn't caught up with his body. We called him Baby Huey after the cartoon character who is always doing everything wrong. But we worked him two or three miles and he started to learn things, and slowly we began to feel that we had something.
"But we didn't know we had anything like this. We got to Kentucky for the Derby and were going out to the barn one morning when the reality dawned on me. We had the favorite for the biggest race in America, and all the papers were telling the story of Seattle Slew. You are supposed to go about these things with dignity. You are supposed to be cool. Boy, is the Slew Crew cool. We set out for Churchill Downs that morning with great dignity, all right. The Taylors picked up the Hills and then picked up Billy and me, but we had an artist, a friend of ours, and his two children along. Most people would have gotten another car or called a cab. Not the Slew Crew. Nine people piled into the car and at the track we all tumbled out like a circus act. Some days Huey has all the dignity and the rest of us come up short."
When Seattle Slew reached the eighth pole in the Belmont. Paula Turner suddenly started sobbing. "Huey." she said. "Baby Huey. My goodness, you turned beautiful."
Now there will be an intermission. Seattle Slew will rest for at least two months before starting back to work on the grass course at Saratoga. He could run in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp on Oct. 2. Also, New York's Governor Hugh Carey is promoting the idea of a Labor Day meeting between Slew and Forego, but not a match race ("Match races are exercises in idiocy." Turner says). Slew could also go the more natural route and meet Forego in the Woodward Handicap and the Marlboro Cup at Belmont in the fall.
All Turner is saying is. "It's time for the Slew Crew to put their feet up and think about things for a while. And darned if there aren't a lot of things to think about."