Seattle Slew bombed in his Hollywood debut. The previously undefeated Triple Crown champion was panned by critics as he lost, not just to one horse but to three, and finished an embarrassing 16 lengths up the track.
The star of the show was J. O. Tobin, who was something of a mystery colt. Arriving in this country after being England's top 2-year-old of 1976, he was scheduled to start in the Santa Anita Derby in March. He never made it. Next, he was to appear in the Hollywood Derby in April. He missed that one and the Kentucky Derby, too. He did run in the Preakness, but worked himself into a lather on the way to the gate, was slow breaking and disliked the footing. He finished fifth to Seattle Slew. Just another California pipe dream, Easterners said. But his win Sunday in the $316,400 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park makes one wonder. If there is a mystery horse now, it is Seattle Slew. Was he sick, sore, tired? Something had to account for his stunning loss, the first in 10 lifetime starts.
The third biggest crowd (68,115) in the track's history chanted, "Slew, Slew, Slew" as the field of seven paraded, but just seconds after J. O. had won the mile-and-a-quarter race under a front-running ride by Bill Shoemaker, the fans were yelling, "Shoe, Shoe, Shoe."
"I had faith that this was a truly fine racehorse," the champion rider said later. "He had problems adjusting to the dirt in this country and struggled to learn to break from the gate after being used to starting from the tape abroad. But I sensed that he was getting better all the time and wanted him to have a second shot at Seattle Slew."
When the gate sprang open for the Swaps, J. O. was the first out and he roared away in front. After a quarter of a mile he led Slew by three lengths. The Triple Crown winner stayed within striking distance for half a mile, but then Shoemaker turned his handsome colt loose, and he came down the stretch an eased-up winner, defeating Affiliate by eight lengths, with Text a nose behind. "I now believe that J. O. Tobin can beat Seattle Slew, even in his best form," Shoemaker said.
The winner is named for a 98-year-old retired San Francisco banker, who is one of the four principal owners of the San Francisco Chronicle. He is an energetic, forceful individual despite his years, and the colt's owner, George Pope Jr., felt his high-spirited son of Never Bend was just the right animal to bear his friend's name.
Though Swaps Day brought joy to the old, it cast gloom on Slew's young owners—Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill. They had headed west certain of victory and eager to show off their champion. Furthermore, they believed they could pick up a lot of loot with little effort.
When Seattle Slew won the Belmont Stakes, the assumption was that his shoes would be pulled and he would not compete again until August. But six days later the shoes were still on, and his owners seriously began to consider sending the colt west. "We could have put him out and let him roll in the sand," said Trainer Billy Turner, "but he was full of himself and seemed to be crying to run. But we had to be satisfied about certain conditions before we went to California."
Mainly, the Slew crew worried about the condition of the Hollywood track. The owners consulted their West Coast trainer, Dave Hofmans, who assured them that the surface was not jarring, as is often the case.
The Swaps had been run only three times before and had lured just one winner of a Triple Crown event, Avatar, who took the 1975 Belmont. But Slew's celebrity quickly upgraded the race and turned Los Angeles into a one-horse town. The track gave out 125,000 yellow-and-black bumper stickers reading SEATTLE SLEW, WHO LOVES YA? HOLLYWOOD PARK. Hundreds of racetrackers—owners, trainers, grooms—appeared at Barn 60 to admire the colt and to take his picture as he walked to and from workouts. The California legend, Johnny Longden, arrived one dawn. "Bringing the horse here is great for California racing," he told Turner. "Not since Citation met Noor [in 1950] have I seen such excitement. I've got a four-seat box and have been offered $500 for it for Swaps Day. No way. I wouldn't miss being there."
Harold Ramsey, the manager of operations at Hollywood Park, was under siege. "The seats were gone 48 hours after we announced that Slew would run," he said. "We put 3,000 aside for sale at the gates because we knew people were going to start lining up at 5 a.m. There has never been anything like this."
Jimmy Kilroe, the track's director of racing and the man responsible for luring the wonder colt west, said, "Seattle Slew is not only the biggest thing in racing today, he's the biggest thing racing might ever have seen. He can add 20,000 to the gate."
With all the ballyhoo, the dangers of sending a racing-sharp thoroughbred on a transcontinental trek were largely overlooked. When the mighty Kelso tried such a jaunt in 1964, he ran two dismal races. In one he was eighth, in the other sixth.
Citation, the only Triple Crown winner besides Slew to go west in his prime, had more success, winning two small races, but he soon went lame and was laid up for a year.
Citation got to California by train, but Slew flew. To keep the colt calm on the 5-hour non-stop jet flight, Jim Hill, who is a vet, gave him 1¼ cc. of Ace promazine, a tranquilizer.
"I've always felt that the reason some horses are bad shippers is that they had a bad experience someplace along the line," Hill says. "They often have to wait to be loaded onto planes, and it can get either very hot or very cold standing in a van on a runway. Getting them to the plane door from the ground can be precarious, too, because horses are unfamiliar with heights. If something spooks them, they will just step off the lift and fall to the ground."
On his arrival Slew settled down quickly, and he seemed to relish the Hollywood track. By week's end there were rumors that a world-record was almost certain. It would be a fine occasion for a stunning victory, one that would be discussed coast-to-coast, because the marketing of the colt was moving into high gear. Five thousand Seattle Slew T shirts ($6) had been shipped west and were being sold at the track. And slewvenirs were bobbing up elsewhere. A $2 Belmont Stakes win ticket on the colt (which would have brought $2.80 at the cashier's window) plus a 35¢ program from that day were being offered through the mail for $10, and uncashed $2 win tickets from each of his Triple Crown victories, mounted on plaques, were selling for $250.
The greening of Seattle Slew began last month with advertisements in the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post. A photo of the horse was offered unframed for $10, framed for $30, and a limited-edition copy "framed in barn siding, numbered and signed by Karen Taylor," was priced at $150. Slew was signed up to endorse Wahl pet clippers and Agway feed, and a Hathaway shirt contract was just around the bend. Coins extolling his excellence were being minted. Banks were after him for endorsements, and just about every racetrack wanted him for an appearance. Last Friday a man from Texas called suggesting a match race with a quarter horse for $300,000.
The defeat, coming as it did when the crew was beginning to reap real money, will hurt. There was talk of syndicating Slew for $14 million before the loss. That figure seems inflated now.
The colt did have one excuse in the Swaps. He was pinched in along the rail by Text for a short spell on the back-stretch. But this was not enough to make him run so poorly. Slew just plain failed to fire. "I knew we were beat going into the first turn," Jockey Jean Cruguet said. "Yeah, it got a little tight in the back-stretch, but if I had had enough horse, it wouldn't have made any difference."
"Slew was physically ready for the race but not mentally," Mickey Taylor said, and perhaps it was as simple as that.
Before the trip, Slew had been checked out by a zeroradiography machine. His body was scanned, and no chips or cracks turned up. In part, this was a publicity stunt, as the horse is endorsing this Xerox product. But the machine that can tell what goes on in a horse's head has not yet been invented.