A Chapter in Triple Crown History: King Kong
Updated: Wednesday, May 26, 2004 12:25 PM
Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2004 11:42 AM
Excerpt From "Seattle Slew" by Dan Mearns, published by Eclipse Press.(Click Here for Information About Seattle Slew, Published by Eclipse Press)
Seattle Slew, draws off in the Belmont Stakes.
While Seattle Slew's Preakness performance elicited few negative remarks, many so-called experts in racing still railed against his chances to complete the Triple Crown, let alone become the first undefeated Triple Crown winner.
The names of the nine horses who had won the Triple Crown prior to 1977 were as familiar to serious racing fans as their own names: Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, and Secretariat. Perhaps equally familiar, however, were the eight horses who had won the Derby and Preakness, then failed in the Belmont: Pensive, Tim Tam, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Kauai King, Forward Pass, Majestic Prince, and Canonero.
The one-and-a-half-mile Belmont distance -- an anachronism in modern American racing -- is one thing that makes the Triple Crown so difficult. Belmont starters have never raced that far (imagine the Derby with two stretch runs) and probably never will again. That's why there are three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont, unlike the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness.
Three weeks might not seem like much, but a lot can happen in that time. In Seattle Slew's case, not all of it was good. Writer Joe McGinniss had been following jockey Jean Cruguet through the Derby and Preakness. In an article for New York magazine published prior to the Belmont Stakes, McGinniss revealed the doubts Cruguet had felt after the Wood. Cruguet told McGinniss he didn't whip the colt in the New York race because he was afraid more horses would enter the Derby if their owners and trainers knew how tired Slew had been after the nine-furlong stakes.
There were other distractions surrounding the Slew Crew. Jim Hill's pension corporation exercised its purchase option on June 1, and the veterinarian became an official co-owner of Seattle Slew and other Wooden Horse runners.
On June 8, three days before the Belmont, Hill relinquished his veterinarian's license and was issued a temporary owner's license. It is illegal in New York, and other racing jurisdictions, for a practicing veterinarian to own racehorses.
In addition, the owners were bombarded with offers to sell the colt. A Texas oilman reportedly offered
$14 million in a deal involving some property exchange, while straight cash offers of $10 million or more became almost routine. The continual response: no sale.
"We have a saying back in Washington at the winter logging camps," Mickey Taylor said. "They say when the snow gets up over three feet high, it doesn't make much difference how much more there is."
In the weeks before the Belmont, the media descended on Barn 54, with TV crews and cameras tracking Billy Turner's every move. The trainer, also under the watchful eyes of the Taylors and Hills, was determined to bring a fit horse to the Belmont. Slew had come off Pimlico's hard track a little sore, but uninjured. Turner embarked on a training regimen of long, slow gallops of up to three or four miles, trying to build the colts endurance. Turner then "tightened the screws," in the racing vernacular, with a series of sharp workouts. He would not be accused of sending out a "short horse" this time.
On a Thursday morning nine days before the race, as a thick fog enveloped Belmont Park, Turner brought out the colt at 6:45 a.m. for a mile work, the longest of the colt's career. On the Belmont track -- at one and a half miles the longest in America -- mile workouts and races start on the backstretch, which on this morning was hidden behind the fog as Taylor and Hill, accompanied by Joe Hirsch, observed from the second floor of the grandstand. Disappointed that the fog had not lifted as had been forecasted, Turner nevertheless proceeded with the work. Aboard his stable pony, he led Slew and Cruguet to the mile pole (a mile from the finish) and sent them on their way, simultaneously pushing the button on his stopwatch. He then galloped back around to the clubhouse turn, so he could click the watch a second time at the finish.
"His was the only watch that caught the work," Hirsch wrote. "His trainer caught him in 1:38 2/5, quite a lively move under the circumstances."
Slew turned in two other impressive works that week, going six furlongs in 1:11 3/5 Tuesday before the race, then "blowing out" three furlongs in :35 4/5 over a sloppy track the morning before the race.
Mickey Taylor thought the Belmont would be the easiest of the three classics, and he was not alone in that assessment. Cruguet walked around the jockeys' room on Belmont Day like a member of the French aristocracy, and when someone asked him how Slew would do, the jockey replied, "Slop or mud, grease or blood, he is going to run like hell today."
"It seemed that all the past Belmont winners were close at the quarter pole," Taylor said. "So all we needed was to get there and hope his class would get him the rest of the way.
"The big thing was the rain. We never knew he was a superb mud horse. We never worked him on an off track, but he galloped on it and seemed to handle it well."
At Turner's hangout, Esposito's Tavern across from the Belmont barn area, the white picket fence traditionally was painted in the colors of the Belmont winner. This year, John Esposito brought out the yellow and black paint a week before the race.
"He'll leave 'em like a freight train leaving hobos," Esposito predicted. Belmont Day was "Seattle Slew Day" in the state of Washington. Hundreds of friends, relatives, and supporters of the Taylors trekked from Washington to New York for the race. Washington Governor Dixy Lee Ray signed a proclamation, stating that "Seattle Slew's name will be etched forever among the few race horses which have won both the prestigious Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes€All of the people of the State of Washington wish Seattle Slew success in the Belmont Stakes."
The proclamation descended from Olympia, but it might well have come from Olympus, for the gods of racing were surely on the side of Slew and his Crew on Belmont Day. Surely Slew would have his "Day" in New York.
Although the racing surface remained muddy for the 109th Belmont Stakes, perfect Saturday weather and the prospect of a Triple Crown drew 71,026 people to Belmont Park -- the second-largest crowd in race history. They sent Slew to the post at 2-5 odds.
Perhaps it was the muddy track, or the daunting prospects of completing the Triple Crown, but bettors weren't as confident as they had been of Secretariat, a 1-10 favorite in 1973. Still, excluding Secretariat, one had to go all the way back to Nashua in 1955 to find shorter odds on a Belmont Stakes winner. All did not go swimmingly on the afternoon of the race. Turner was late getting Slew to the track when the normal route from the Belmont stable area had to be changed because so many cars were parked in the area.
"Slew and his entourage, which included trainer Turner and four uniformed Pinkerton guards, had to make several detours en route from barn to paddock," Hirsch noted. "They arrived some 20 minutes late, delaying post time almost 10 minutes."
(The following week, Stewards fined Turner $200 for the delay.)
When Slew finally made it to the Belmont paddock, the pent-up crowd let loose, cheering louder and pressing closer than it had in either the Derby or Preakness. Many fans carried signs of their support, the placards reading "Good Luck Slew" and "We Believe Seattle Slew Can Do."
Slew became a trifle unnerved with the ovation, sweating profusely and appearing skittish as Turner and his assistants went about their saddling chores. Turner knew that such nervousness, coupled with the prospects of racing on a muddy, tiring track, could take a toll on the horse. Slew seemed the thorough professional, however, as he made a turn around Belmont's spacious paddock, then trotted onto the track under Cruguet. He took no notice as the band played "Sidewalks of New York." Perhaps after "My Old Kentucky Home" at Churchill Downs and "Maryland, My Maryland" at Pimlico, he had come to expect such accompaniment in post parades.
Turner and Cruguet had felt the key to the Belmont was to get Slew to relax as much as possible through the early going. But Spirit Level, whose jockey wore the Meadow Stable colors carried by Secretariat, tried to run with the champion, forcing Slew to run a little faster than the trainer or jockey would have liked.
Nevertheless, Slew led at every call in the Belmont, going the first quarter in :24 3/5, the half-mile in :48 2/5, six furlongs in 1:14, and a mile in 1:38 4/5. The fractions were well within Slew's range, and the colt seemed comfortable as he raced along, increasing the distance between himself and his rivals. Watching the race, one had little doubt that Slew would indeed become racing's tenth Triple Crown winner.
At the three-eighths pole, Cruguet lightened his hold on the reins a bit and encouraged the colt with his knees and body. Slew took the hint, drawing away. Four lengths in front at the top of the stretch, after a mile and a quarter in 2:03 4/5, Cruguet glanced behind him and knew the race was over.
Slew had handled his three stiffest challengers in rote, dismissing Spirit Level after a half-mile, Sanhedrin on the backstretch, and Run Dusty Run on the final turn with equal aplomb. Watching from the press box, Turf writer Edwin Pope hit upon the perfect New York analogy, writing that the big brown colt "shook them off like King Kong batting away airplanes."
Several yards before the wire, Cruguet stood up in his stirrups and waved to the crowd, something that was unheard of at the time. Learned racetrackers were taken aback at Cruguet's triumphant gesture, which seemed at most dangerous, or at least unwise, but it soon became standard practice among jockeys winning major events.
"I'm glad he didn't fall off," Turner said.3
Slew won the Belmont by four lengths from Run Dusty Run, a gallant rival who might have been a champion -- and perhaps a Triple Crown winner -- in any other year. He had surrendered second place to Sanhedrin early in the stretch, then showed his courage by coming on again to vanquish that rival by two lengths at the wire.
With no one capable of challenging him in the stretch, Slew coasted home in 2:29 3/5, more than five full seconds slower than Secretariat's record-breaking 2:24 in 1973, when Big Red won by thirty-one lengths. In fairness to Slew, however, it should be noted that the muddy Belmont track of 1977 had been extremely fast and hard during the 1973 Belmont meeting. Secretariat's was one of eight main track records eclipsed that summer.
"He's the greatest horse there ever was!" Karen Taylor exuberantly exclaimed after the race. Even with Secretariat's dazzling Triple Crown fresh in the mind, it was impossible to argue with her on that day. Slew had worn blankets of roses, black-eyed Susans, and carnations. He had done it all, without a blemish on his record.
Fan letters began arriving by the bag full, most addressed simply "Seattle Slew, Belmont Park." In his book on Slew's Triple Crown season, Cady noted one letter in particular: Sent from a young girl in South Carolina, the letter contained a request for "pictures," a blank check, and her bank account balance, $12.80.
Shortly after the Belmont, Karen put things in perspective during an impromptu speech at the monthly dinner meeting of the Thoroughbred Club of America in Lexington, Kentucky. Some 350 Kentucky horse people, including breeder Ben Castleman, gave her a standing ovation as she took the podium at the Springs Motel.
"I live in a mobile home, and I drive a pickup truck, but I've got a helluva horse," she said. "I think the most exciting thing about the whole experience is that we have proven anybody in America can go out and for $10,000 or $20,000 -- or even $30,000 -- pick out a horse that may do what Seattle Slew has done."
It was the summation of one of Thoroughbred racing's central messages to those contemplating buying a racehorse: You don't have to be a king to experience success in the Sport of Kings. Seattle Slew had become the embodiment of that message and would remain so for all time.(Click Here for Information About Seattle Slew, Published by Eclipse Press)
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