There is an unwritten law regarding the Champagne Stakes—the colt finishing first will be named champion of his generation. For 12 seasons, commencing with Buckpasser in 1965 and continuing through Seattle Slew in 1976, the law has been immutable even though it has provoked numerous arguments. In the case of Seattle Slew, the Champagne marked his only stakes win in three 1976 starts, but he was named the best 2-year-old, anyway. Last Saturday at Belmont Park Calumet Farm's Alydar beat Affirmed by 1¼ lengths in a splendid horse race that marked the fifth meeting between the two, but only the second victory by Alydar over Affirmed.
Alydar's performance was the kind that normally deserves a championship. He was in trouble throughout the running, made a couple of right turns, about three lefts and threw in a couple of figure 8s as well. He was boxed, bothered and bewildered and took a harsh pounding from Jockey Jorge Velasquez' whip before reaching the wire in the mile race in 1:36[3/5]. But if Affirmed has beaten the Calumet colt three out of five, how can Alydar be the best 2-year-old? The Champagne Law says so, that's how.
At this time of year, racing people gather up their facts and opinions (mostly opinions) and try to decide on all the season's champions. Usually a runner has proved his worth by mid-October, although a few races remain that could bear on the final vote in November. Ballots are cast by the 500 members of the National Turf Writers Association, Daily Racing Form staffers and racing secretaries from dozens of tracks around the country. In December the results are announced with appropriate fanfare and fulmination.
A certain amount of contentiousness is expected, but this year voices are being raised even before the ballots have been mailed out. The Alydar-Affirmed contest is only one being hotly disputed. Even more provocative is the question of who should be Horse of the Year. The principal candidates are Forego and Seattle Slew. They seemed certain to settle the matter on the racetrack by appearing together in at least one race during the fall, if not in more. But they never met.
Until July 3, Seattle Slew was the most popular horse in the U.S. since Trigger. He ran through the Triple Crown undefeated, the first colt in history to do so. Then came the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park in which he was beaten 16 lengths by J. O. Tobin, Affiliate and Text. The next day Forego, three for three at the time, ran in the Suburban Handicap at Belmont and was beaten a neck by Quiet Little Table while trying to carry a career high of 138 pounds. Forego lost his next outing, the Brooklyn Handicap, by 11 lengths, then finished last of seven in the Whitney Stakes over a deep, tiring track at Saratoga.
Meanwhile, Seattle Slew was hardly venturing from his shedrow. On Aug. 29 one of his owners, Dr. Jim Hill, was suspended for 30 days for practicing as a vet in New York while owning horses that were racing at the metropolitan tracks. Through the spring Dr. Hill had been a hidden partner in the champion colt, and it was not until Preakness Week that he acknowledged that he and his wife Sally owned 50%. But although the New York State Racing and Wagering Board knew Hill had violated the rules four weeks before the Belmont Stakes in June, it postponed a decision until late summer, which allowed Slew to star (before 70,229 Belmont patrons) in the final race of the Triple Crown.
While Hill and Slew sat out their suspensions, Forego ran a splendid race to win the Woodward Stakes. Suddenly the old gelding seemed sure of garnering his fourth championship in a row. But just days later, Forego's aging legs swelled and he was retired from competition for the year.
Seattle Slew will return to serious training this week—he has been bothered by a cough—and he could run again this year, but hardly during the "voting season."
Traditionally, those who decide the Horse of the Year place more value on races won in the fall than in the spring. Also, in the past 20 years the horse that wins the Woodward has been named Horse of the Year more often than not. Then there is the matter of weight. Forego has won his titles in large part because of his amazing ability to carry huge amounts of lead. His record this year shows four wins in seven starts, a winning percentage of .571. While that is a low figure, other horses have been named Horse of the Year with lower figures: Fort Marcy in 1970 (.384), Roman Brother in 1965 (.357) and Kelso with .455 in 1964 and .500 in 1962.
Now, consider the arguments for Slew. Count Fleet, Whirlaway, War Admiral, Citation and Secretariat won the Triple Crown and also were named the outstanding performers of those seasons. However, with the exception of Count Fleet (who was injured in the Belmont), they ran well throughout the fall. But none of those colts had to face a rival in the polls with the reputation of a Forego. Still, when one looks at what Seattle Slew accomplished in 1977—winning six of seven starts—it is hard to deny him the title.
His only defeat came when his owners went to Hollywood Park in search of glitter and gold and their reach exceeded Slew's grasp of the surface. They underestimated the toll the Triple Crown had taken on the horse, and they broke another racing rule, a very old one, which says that if you are good let the opposition come to you. Never go looking for horses to beat you, because they are out there somewhere.
In other divisions the awards will be easier to hand out—top 2-year-old filly, Lakeville Miss; 3-year-old filly, Our Mims; older horse, Forego, of course; handicap mare, Cascapedia; sprinter, Seattle Slew; grass horse, probably Majestic Light, but three $150,000-plus turf races remain to be run.
Alydar and Affirmed will go head to head one final time in the Laurel Futurity on Oct. 29. Both stables are eager for the matchup. If Alydar comes home in front that day, one could consider a third nomination for Horse of the Year. Sweet Tooth, the colt's dam, also produced Our Mims. It would seem that a mare that comes up with two champions in one season deserves something more than a pat on the neck and a handful of Kentucky clover.