May 21, 1977
There are a handful of days in one's life that can be looked back upon and considered to be perfect days. For those in love with Seattle Slew and the sport of thoroughbred racing, May 21, 1977 has to be classified as one of those days. The weather was beautiful at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, and the stage was set for one of the most epic battles in racing history. This setting provided the backdrop where the courageous and undefeated Seattle Slew would vie for the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Two weeks earlier he had captured the Kentucky Derby while "overcoming great travail", as noted by the Daily Racing Form. On this picturesque day the racing fans poured in, setting the record for attendance at Pimlico. And they came for good reason.
Prior to the race, the Daily Racing Form described the challenge Slew would be facing as "the stiffest test of his career." This conjecture stood to reason, as Slew was facing elite competition and breaking from a post position that was not ideal based upon the way Pimlico's racing surface was playing. The stellar field of nine three-year-old colts included two brilliant runners in Cormorant and J. O. Tobin. Neither had participated in the Kentucky Derby, opting to wait and try Seattle Slew at Pimlico. Between them, Cormorant and J. O. Tobin had won eleven of fourteen starts. Cormorant had put together a string of seven straight victories, multiple stakes included. J. O. Tobin was England's Champion two-year-old of 1976 and had won four of five career races, including Hollywood Park's Coronado Handicap. Run Dusty Run was a multiple stakes winner that had finished first or second in fourteen of fifteen career starts while facing the best of his era in the form of Seattle Slew, Clev Er Tell, and For the Moment, to name a few. Iron Constitution was in prime form, having won two of three races since facing Seattle Slew in the Wood Memorial. In his last, he scored a fast-closing victory by a nose over Cormorant in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, benefiting from the speed duels that Cormorant had rebuffed throughout the race.
In its May 21st edition, the Daily Racing Form wrote, "Slew will be opposed by horses of unusual speed in Cormorant and J. O. Tobin. Cormorant equaled Aqueduct's inner-course record in winning the Gotham Stakes. J. O. Tobin just missed a course record at Hollywood Park last month when he won the Coronado mile on the turf in 1:34 2/5. The latter's English trainer, Noel Murless, who retired last season, has said J. O. Tobin is the quickest he had in his stable since Abernant, a top sprinter in 1949 and 1950. Murless, incidentally, flew the Atlantic to see J. O. Tobin run in the Preakness."
Although jealous critics were still questioning Seattle Slew's greatness, the connections of most of the horses that he had defeated in the past were speaking volumes about his supremacy in their actions as well as their words. Only two of the fourteen rivals Seattle Slew had defeated in Louisville decided to try their luck again in the $191,100 Preakness. Said Bill O'Neill, trainer of Get the Axe, "We've got to go someplace where Slew is not running."
As alluded to earlier, post position 8 in this field on this track was less than ideal. The track bias at Pimlico in the spring of 1977 had overwhelmingly favored horses that could take the lead along the inside path. Colts with great speed had drawn post positions to Slew's inside including Cormorant with 1, Regal Sir with 4, and J. O. Tobin with 6.
In his column on Preakness day, racing expert William C. Phillips, one of Cormorant's staunchest backers, wrote:
"The luck of the post position draw put Seattle Slew on the outside in a field of nine at a time when the rail advantage is coming up stronger than ever before, if that is possible. It does not figure that he will be able to take a clear lead from some of the fast breakers nearer the rail in the run to the clubhouse turn, or that jockey Jean Cruguet will ask him to expend the necessary energy to accomplish the feat if he can avoid it. This leads to the conclusion that Seattle Slew is coming up to the sternest test of his entire career. Undefeated, and in the opinion of many, never extended, he is on the verge of greatness if he is able to overcome the post position disadvantage and the rivals who have been honed to a razor-sharp edge in anticipation of this moment.
"Conversely, if ever a horse had the best of a situation going in it is Cormorant, who has the speed, the Number 1 post position, and a jockey that knows its advantage and how to use it. And there is evidence that Cormorant might even be as good or better than Seattle Slew."
The running of the race and history would prove otherwise, and afterwards Mr. Phillips would be the first to admit that even he underestimated Seattle Slew's greatness.
Seattle Slew was calm in the paddock and precocious in the post parade. Knowing he was about to race, he worked himself into his intimidating "War Dance", a sure display of his energy and emotions. He settled into the gate as the odds-on favorite at 2 to 5.
As if sensing that he needed to break smartly on this day, Slew sped away alertly from the gate and used his speed to create the room needed to angle in from the eighth path. Cormorant had come out running along the rail and Slew rushed over to his side. This early speed test carried the two far ahead of the others. Slew was ranging alongside his rival throughout the backstretch, allowing Cormorant to set the pace and keep a lead ranging from a neck to nearly a length.
Together, they accounted for some of the fastest fractions in Preakness history. They went a quarter mile in :22 2/5, a half mile in :45 3/5, and six furlongs in 1:09 4/5. At one point near the end of the backstretch, Slew had allowed Cormorant to gain an advantage of roughly one length. It was then that Seattle Slew and Cruguet decided it was time to go.
Seattle Slew accelerated to join, pass, and move away from Cormorant halfway through the final bend. His time for the mile was 1:34 4/5, the fastest ever run by any horse in the Preakness. And he kept going, coming home without pressure and being eased by Cruguet in the final 100 yards to finish 1 and ½ lengths in front. Iron Constitution closed to be second, Run Dusty Run third, Cormorant fourth, and J. O. Tobin fifth.
Seattle Slew's time of 1:54 2/5 for the mile and three-sixteenths was the second fastest in the 102 years of the race. Canonero II had set the mark of 1:54 six years earlier.
Looking back at Seattle Slew's final times objectively, we can put them in proper perspective keeping the following factor in mind. In nearly every victory he achieved, he was eased at some point during his stretch run. For example, even during his seven-furlong track record at Hialeah, which was never bested, Cruguet sat as still as a statue on Slew before easing him in the stretch. If he were put to task in the stretch of the Preakness, he most certainly would've run the fastest final time ever. However, his connections were smart and prudent in going after time records. After all, when you have a great horse that is leading comfortably in the stretch, it is foolish and potentially dangerous to keep the pressure on.
Afterwards, William C. Phillips was quick to salute the winner. "It would be difficult now," he wrote, "for anyone to damn Seattle Slew with the faint praise that he is the best of any ordinary lot. It would be more difficult finding anybody to believe it."
"My horse ran super," said Cormorant's jockey, Danny Wright. "He tried his best and gave me everything. He did everything I asked when I asked. We simply couldn't outfoot Seattle Slew."
Although Cormorant finished fourth, his effort was the best in the race, excluding Seattle Slew. "Our horse was good and game," explained Cormorant's trainer Jim Simpson. "If we didn't give it a try, nobody was going to. If we didn't go after him, it would have been a walkover. I don't know about running Cormorant in the Belmont. Oh, he's nominated, but it would be like tackling a monster."
Later that evening, Jimmy Jones, who trained Citation and other great horses for Calumet Farm, declared, "I was lucky enough to get close to some extraordinary horses. Citation, Coaltown, Whirlaway, Two Lea, Tim Tam. When I look at Seattle Slew's record all I see is 1s. He wins, and then he wins again.
"I'm from Missouri and he's shown even me."
It was the perfect ending to a very special day. A day that will long be remembered in the annals of racing history for the way Seattle Slew once again rose to the occasion while overcoming stellar competition and challenging obstacles.
And in the process, The Slew again displayed his huge heart to the world.
Race Profile written by Charles M. Raehse