Brillance on the Track
May 18, 2002 - The Blood-Horse
by Steve Haskin

It was nine o'clock in the morning on May 7, 2002 25 years to the day since Seattle Slew's historic victory in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). The great Thoroughbred gave one final look at his devoted owners, the Taylors, who, as usual, were by his side. And with his eyes, he proclaimed, as the Sioux warriors used to before going to battle, "It is a good day to die."

Then, with the same class and dignity he displayed throughout his 28 years of life, he closed his eyes and passed quietly away. Even in death, he did it with style. He knew no other way. Seattle Slew was something wild and beautiful. He could be as swift and lethal as a falcon in a dive or soar as gracefully as an egret on gossamer wings. He was, in every sense of the word, a Thoroughbred.

His trainer, Billy Turner, was able to keep the fire inside Slew burning through the Triple Crown, but taught him how to control it. That was never more evident than in the Derby . When Slew broke badly and found himself encircled by a stampede of horses, he reacted like a claustrophobic trapped in an elevator. Desperately in search of the open spaces he craved, he charged through the pack, knocking aside anyone who stood in his way. With his blood at the boiling point, he stared daggers at For The Moment for most of the running, while setting torrid fractions. He finally bounded to the lead, then in an instant, cooled off and shut down the engines at the eighth pole, just as Turner had taught him. It was as if he knew his trainer had bigger plans for him and he had to save something for another day.

In 17 career starts, Slew won 14 races by an average margin of 43⁄4 lengths. He won the mile Champagne Stakes (gr. I) by 93⁄4 lengths in a stakes-record 1:342⁄5. He won his 3-year-old debut by nine lengths in a track-record 1:203⁄5 for seven furlongs. His time of 1:542⁄5 in the Preakness (gr. I) was the second-fastest ever. His time of 1:454⁄5 in the Marlboro Cup (gr. I) was the second-fastest 11⁄8 miles ever run, and he did it carrying 128 pounds. By defeating Affirmed decisively, he became the only Triple Crown winner ever to defeat a Triple Crown winner. In his career finale, the Stuyvesant Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct, he missed the track record by two-fifths of a second, winning in hand under 134 pounds.

This amazing package of speed, class, and power was purchased for the rummage-sale price of $17,500 at the 1975 Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale. The foursome destined to ride along on the dark bay comet were Washington lumberman Mickey Taylor and his wife, Karen, and New York veterinarian Jim Hill and his wife, Sally. Looking to spend no more than $12,000 or $13,000, it took a hard, swift elbow by Karen into the ribs of her husband to convince him to keep going. From that elbow came a one-horse conglomerate that has been growing steadily for more than two decades. Slew went on to earn more than $1.2 million, then was syndicated for $12 million. His offspring have earned more than $75 million.

Seattle Slew didn't care if he killed off his opponents early or late. If they tried to take him on early, he'd run them into the ground, no matter how fast he had to go. In the Marlboro Cup, when Steve Cauthen, aboard Affirmed, decided to sit back and wait before going after him, Slew made him pay the price. After being allowed to waltz the opening half in :47, Slew blazed home his last five furlongs in an astounding :584⁄5, turning the first ever battle of Triple Crown winners into nothing more than a procession.

In the only races he was beaten:
  • He was rushed into the Swaps Stakes (gr. I) way too soon after his Triple Crown sweep, a move his owners now admit was a mistake;
  • With only two easy seven-furlong allowance victories in the previous 14 months, he was dead-short in the nine-furlong Paterson Handicap (gr. III), in which he was beaten a neck by eventual co-champion sprinter Dr. Patches, who was in receipt of 14 pounds from Slew;
  • And finally, in what many believe to be the greatest losing effort of all time, he somehow managed to battle back the entire length of the stretch against the top-class Exceller in the 11⁄2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). Seemingly exhausted after fighting off Affirmed and his pacesetter in suicidal fractions, Slew was passed at the quarter pole by Exceller, who had made up some 20 lengths and appeared to be on his way to an easy victory. Slew, however, dug in on the sloppy track, and kept fighting back, only to fall a nose short. It was this race, more than his victories, that stamped his greatness. After all these years, people still talk about the courage he displayed on that wet, autumn afternoon.
Not even the controversies that surrounded the horse could diminish his stature in the eyes of the public. After Turner was fired, replaced by Doug Peterson, his regular rider, Jean Cruguet, also was let go, and the mount was given to Angel Cordero Jr. Even Slew's groom, John Polston, resigned. Finally, the owners' partnership was dissolved following a heated court battle.

Between Slew's 3-year-old and 4-year-old campaigns, he came down with a viral infection that nearly cost him his life. "I've seen other horses with the same thing," Mickey Taylor said, "and they died within 24 hours. But he had the heart and the fight."

Slew would need every ounce of heart and fight to battle another malady later in life. But the spirit of his youth that fought to the end finally lost out to the reality of old age.

And so, as Seattle Slew lay in his stall at Hill 'n' Dale Farm, it was Derby Day 1977 once again. The crowd was cheering. His legs and heart were going faster and faster. There was no turning back. It was the perfect time to say farewell. It was a good day to die.

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