Last Saturday afternoon, in the winner's circle at Belmont Park, Angel Cordero Jr., as has long been his custom, flipped his whip high in the air in a victory salute. But the second part of his distinctive routine, the leap from the saddle and the perfect landing on tiptoes, had to wait a while. Cordero was encumbered by the stiff blanket of red and white carnations which were there to remind even the slowest-witted racing fan that this was the Marlboro Cup.
Later, the festivities over, Cordero struggled free and had a few words for Slew o'Gold, the big bay 4-year-old who looked no more tired than if he'd galloped a couple of warm-up furlongs. "He's the best horse I rode since Seattle Slew," said Cordero, recalling Slew o'Gold's sire. "[He ran] like a bus." Come to think of it, that was just how Slew o'Gold had won the $400,000 Marlboro Cup.
Held by many to be America's best racehorse, Slew o'Gold is a very special kind of bus, of course. Not a genteel tour bus, but an express bus on Madison Avenue, say, just cruising before popping into top gear, roaring up the bus lane, jumping lights, scattering lesser vehicles. A jam-packed bus, too; carrying top weight of 129 pounds, Slew gave from 10 to 15 pounds to the rest of the field. "My horse broke good," Cordero said, "but there wasn't a lot of speed. I sat on him in the first quarter, then I moved. I was in a bad spot at first with two horses in front of me, moving slow, so I went outside of them. Then he took off. He's too strong for me to fight him."
And once Cordero had the lead, just outside of the half-mile, the outcome was never seriously in doubt. Carr de Naskra, the 3-year-old who won the Travers in August, had his nose in front for a brief moment down the backstretch, and thereafter hung bravely on Slew's heels, but second was all the colt ever looked to be. Shifty Sheik, the claimer trained by the mysterious Oscar Barrera, was in contention briefly on the far turn. He had challenged Slew in the Woodward two weeks earlier, but here he could do no better than seventh in the nine-horse field. The 1¾ length margin by which Slew o'Gold won was more comfortable than it sounds, as Cordero eased him down into low gear approaching the wire.
Now, with Woodward and Marlboro wins, Slew o'Gold has only Belmont's Oct. 20 Jockey Club Gold Cup between him and the fall triple crown—a feat never accomplished in the 12 years of the Fall Championship Series—and a $1 million bonus.
Slew o'Gold is a late bloomer; he ran an unimpressive fourth in the 1983 Derby and lived up to his daddy's name only in Belmont's '83 fall series, winning the Woodward and Jockey Club but losing the Marlboro by a neck to Highland Blade. This year his spring schedule was scrapped after he bruised a foot in a workout.
It was another, and stranger, foot injury that almost cost Slew this year's Woodward win. "He looked fine in the winner's circle," said Mickey Taylor, one of his owners, "but there was blood running out of his shoe. He ran that race on heart." On Aug. 4, in the Whitney at Saratoga, the frog of Slew's left forefoot—the elastic, horny substance in the middle of the sole of a horse's foot—had been torn. No sooner had it healed than he injured the frog on his right forefoot three weeks ago. And, in the days leading up to Saturday's race, it became the best-known frog this side of Kermit.
To protect the tender areas, Slew o'Gold was fitted with two aluminum modified bar shoes—protective plates beneath the racing shoes. Trainer John Hertler insisted Slew would run well, but suddenly the horse looked vulnerable. When, on Thursday morning, the temperature at Belmont was 18 degrees lower than the previous day and a mean rain began to fall, the chance of an off track seemed to threaten Slew o'Gold's chances even more.
Thursday also saw a special breakfast at Belmont, at which Thomas M. Bancroft Jr., chairman of the board of the New York Racing Association, was moved to express his pleasure at the "notoriety" the 12-year-old Marlboro Cup had gained. That may not have been the word Bancroft meant to use. Nevertheless, it might have been a sidelong reference to the achievements of Barrera, who had bought Shifty Sheik as an unprepossessing $35,000 claimer at Saratoga last summer and in a short time had the horse running a close second to Slew o'Gold in the Woodward. That could be written off as a stroke of luck, except that Barrera, a habitual snapper-up of apparently low-grade horses, has made something of a practice of such miracles. The NYRA's security force and state investigators have again and again searched his barn and his employees for "illegal medications," without success. Says John L. Keenan, the NYRA's executive director in charge of security, "We've found nothing he's doing that's improper...but we haven't stopped looking at this trainer."
Other challenges to Slew o'Gold's superiority were expected from a group of redoubtable 3-year-olds who, like Slew o'Gold himself in 1983, had found extra strength late in the year. Carr de Naskra and Hail Bold King posed the chief threats. Hail Bold King appeared to have an excellent chance, particularly after the colt's extraordinary burst of speed in the Pegasus Handicap at the Meadowlands the same night as the Woodward, when a half-mile into the race he suddenly had accelerated wide of the whole field and gone on to win by 9½ lengths. An off track would help him, as it would Shifty Sheik.
Although Hail Bold King attracted shorter odds—7-2—than expected, Slew o'Gold was always the favorite. He went off at 4-5, and 2:02[2/5] minutes later he had magnificently justified his price. Hail Bold King finished out of the money.
After the race, back in barn 40, a red carnation in his halter, Slew o'Gold was contemplating the carrots that were his reward, and Hertler was happy to note that the famous frog wasn't even croaking. "He didn't give me any scare this time," the trainer said. "He walks sound, and he looks good."
"They will not beat him this year," crowed Cordero.