Saturday, June 8, 2013

Seattle Slew

Lexington, KY.   Visited October 2011

It’s 2013 and for the thirty-fifth year in a row we will not have a Triple Crown winner in horseracing. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a worthy blog candidate for our annual race horse entry. So here’s to the only horse ever to win the Triple Crown with an undefeated record. The great Seattle Slew.

Seattle Slew is perhaps the most unlikely Triple Crown winner in history. He was born (foaled) in February 1974 in Lexington, KY. A year later he was rejected for the prestigious Keenland Sale and sold at auction (the only Triple Crown winner ever acquired in this somewhat pedestrian way) for a relatively paltry $17,500. The purchasers were two couples who were relative novices to horseracing. They actually spent $2,500 more than they had budgeted to get him. The yearling was named for the hometown of one of the owners and for a swamp in Florida (a ‘slew) purchased by the others.

Though he was well-sized for racing, Seattle Slew had a birth defect (a reason he was so cheap) that caused his right front foot to sway out when he ran. One of his owners said, "He looks like a crab, a bad crab". His trainer, Billy Turner took to calling him Baby Huey in his early training. But nobody denied that he was fast – faster than any of them had thought possible. The horse was taken to New York to train for his inaugural two year old racing season. That first season (1976) he won three races and was named Two Year Old of the Year.

Seattle Slew down the stretch of
the Kentucky Derby

In his 1977 Triple Crown season Seattle Slew ran three prep races culminating in a 3 ¼ length victory in the Wood Memorial. He therefore came into the 1977 Kentucky Derby with a 6-0 record and was installed as a 1-2 favorite. Though typically a speed horse who liked to run at the front of the pack, Seattle Slew stumbled out of the gate, cut his mouth and found himself near the back of a 14 horse field. But under the guide of jockey Jean Cruget he quickly recovered, picked his way through the crowd and beat the field by almost two lengths.  Watch Seattle Slew's Derby run here

Me and my friend Mark
Prater at Churchill Downs

Outstanding SI cover of Slew's
Belmont finish

Two weeks later in the Preakness, Slew outdueled Cormorant by 1½ lengths. On June 11, 1977 Seattle Slew returned to his home track to run in the Belmont Stakes as the overwhelming favorite. Breaking out under the lead of Cruget in the classy black and gold silks, Slew led virtually wire to wire to win by four lengths to extend his win streak to 9 for 9 in becoming the tenth Triple Crown winner in history. 

You can watch Slew's Belmont triumph here .

Three weeks later, probably due to over-racing, Seattle Slew’s winning streak was snapped as he finished a distant fourth in the Swaps Stakes. In spite of this loss he was acclaimed Horse of the Year for 1977. Not long after the Swaps Stakes the horse developed a respiratory infection that sidelined him for nearly a year. These days that would mean certain retirement to stud. But by May 1978 the horse had recovered and he was racing as a four year old.

Seattle Slew winning the 1978 Marlboro Cup

In September 1978 he helped make history by participating in the first race between Triple Crown winners when he ran in the Marlboro Cup against 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed. Both horses had only lost once in their careers. Affirmed was the favorite in the race but Slew took the lead early and held off a late charge by Affirmed to win by three lengths. You can watch the historic Marlboro Cup race here.   In a rematch two races later both horses were beaten.

Seattle Slew retired at the end of his four year old season with a record of 14-3 and was named Older Horse of the Year – the third top award of his three year career.  He spent his retirement in stud at several Lexington farms, ending up at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms. Slew is considered to have been a successful breeding horse, siring multiple stakes winners, the most prominent of which was Swale, winner of the 1984 Kentucky Derby and the Belmont.

Sign for Hill 'N' Dale Farm in Lexington

In his later years the horse suffered from various ailments. On May 7, 2002, exactly 25 years after he won the Kentucky Derby, Seattle Slew died in his sleep. He was 28 years old. He is buried at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm in Lexington.

The last known picture of an elderly
Seattle Slew

On a trip to Louisville for a conference I took an extra day to drive out to Lexington to do some touring. I had contacted Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms to arrange a visit. It was pouring rain and I was running late so when I got to the farm the gate was locked. I called the office and, amazingly, they just opened the gate and let me drive into the farm (which is still a first class thoroughbred breeding farm) and drive back to the stable area where Slew is buried. He is commemorated with a very classy black marble memorial area and a bronze statue.

Beautiful spot on a very rainy day

Note the blogger's calling card Phillies cap
verifying the visit

In 1999 Bloodhorse Magazine named Seattle Slew the ninth greatest racehorse of all time. Perhaps the most resonant epitaph for Slew comes from John Sikura, owner of Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms,

"It was one of the great privileges to be around something great, a feeling that will likely never be duplicated," he said. "He was one in a million, and showed us there is that possibility in a game of impossibilities."

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