Search

A Horse for the Ages SEATTLE SLEW 1974-2002 The Triple Crown winner's greatest moment came in a defeat

May 20, 2002
May 20, 2002

Table of Contents
May 20, 2002

A Horse for the Ages SEATTLE SLEW 1974-2002 The Triple Crown winner's greatest moment came in a defeat

Twenty-four years later it still remains among the most vivid of
racetrack memories, an old print that flickers through the mind's
eye in a silvery blur of black and white. The gray mud and
slashing whips and flying hooves. The jockey struggling to stay
on his mount as his saddle slips on the first turn. The straining
necks of two of racing's giants, Triple Crown winners Seattle
Slew and Affirmed, as they blaze together through the first half
mile of the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, with the cries of that
split time crackling through cavernous Belmont Park like a blue
trolley spark: 45 1/5 seconds! And, in the end, that final,
surpassing twist in the drama--the last of those 12 furlongs, the
13 seconds in which Slew defined the thoroughbred as he has
rarely been defined.

This is an article from the May 20, 2002 issue Original Layout

When it was announced that Seattle Slew, the last living Triple
Crown winner, had died in his sleep in Kentucky on May 7 at age
28, the first thought was not of his consummate triumph in the
Champagne Stakes at Belmont as a 2-year-old; nor of his
bloodless stroll through the Triple Crown, in which his
competition was so ordinary that he never really showed what he
could do; nor of his smashing triumph in the 1978 Marlboro Cup,
in which he beat Affirmed by three lengths in 1:45 4/5 for nine
furlongs, only two fifths off Secretariat's world mark; nor of
his remarkable career as a stallion, in which he has sired 102
stakes winners, including Kentucky Derby winner Swale and 1992
Horse of the Year A.P. Indy.

What first came to mind was that haunting Gold Cup--a race Slew
lost but surely won.

He came to that Gold Cup with a reputation as one of the fastest
horses who ever lived, but he left with something more. Seattle
Slew did have, in rare abundance, that most cherished of
qualities: speed. He had such a blinding, natural turn of foot
that other horses simply withered when he lit the gas: A
brilliant miler who could carry his speed a distance of ground,
he was bold, arrogant and headstrong, as if always itching for a
fight. So it had been in the 1977 Kentucky Derby: After hitting
the gate and careening into the horse next to him, Slew was
trapped behind a phalanx of horses. With no place to go, he
simply lowered his head and bulled through the line, shouldering
three horses aside as he made off for the leaders.

Few horses of any era have made such a powerful, lasting
impression as Slew--and this from the moment he first strode onto
the track. Hall of Fame trainer LeRoy Jolley recalls the colt on
the day he made his second start--on Oct. 5, 1976, in a
seven-furlong allowance race at Belmont Park--and of how Slew
materialized in the paddock like some kind of black Baryshnikov,
exuding radiant energy and bouncing to the track on the tips of
his toes. "I don't think I ever saw that horse walk," Jolley
says. "He danced everywhere he went."

Slew's four owners--lumberman Mickey Taylor and his wife, Karen,
and veterinarian Jim Hill and his wife, Sally--had paid only
$17,500 for the colt in 1975. No beauty to behold, Slew was then
an awkward-looking yearling with a crooked right front leg, a
plain head and a modest pedigree. By the time he got to the
races, his body so bulged with muscles that it always looked like
his coat was cut a size too small.

Nine months after the race at Belmont, the Taylors and Hills
owned the only undefeated horse ever to win the Triple Crown, but
they never looked more prescient than during the last furlong of
the Gold Cup. A desperate Steve Cauthen somehow managed to stay
on Affirmed as his saddle slipped, but his champion was finished
after a mile. Slew had opened 2 1/2 lengths, yet the duel with
Affirmed had nearly finished him, too, and when Exceller swept by
him off the final turn, Slew looked beaten. Then, magically, he
began to battle back. His neck thrust straight out, his ears
pinned back, Slew looked the very picture of unremitting will as
he whittled Exceller's lead to a half length, then a neck ... a
head. Every soul in the grandstand leaned to the right, straining
with each stride of that indomitable colt, until there arose that
final, whistling exhalation from the crowd as the two horses hit
the wire as one.

Exceller won by the snip of his chocolate nose. In defeat,
though, Slew had expressed the essence of the blooded horse in
his own unforgettable terms. As brilliant as he was on the
courses, with 14 victories in 17 races and earnings of $1.2
million, that battling final furlong remains his most enduring
legacy as a racehorse--his signature moment, writ with a
flourish, in his large corner of racing history. --William Nack

COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER(DERBY) THREE FEAT Slew winning, from top to bottom, the 1977 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont; at stud in Kentucky in 2001 (left).COLOR PHOTO: BARTON SILVERMAN(PREAKNESS) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: TONY TRIOLO(BELMONT) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES(STANDING) [See caption above]