Life Changer

By John Williams -- In the late fall of 1978, the Bee Gees were topping the pop charts with "Stayin' Alive." Sideburns, long hair, and bell bottoms were still cool. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Baltimore Colts were still playing football on 33rd St. where they belonged, and the 10th horse to win the Triple Crown arrived to stand at Spendthrift Farm near Lexington.

Seattle Slew arrived at the airport on a chilly, overcast day in his private charter accompanied by his owners, Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill. A small army of media personalities gathered early that day, along with Brownell Combs, who had masterminded the syndication of Slew a year earlier--all awaiting the precious cargo that would put Spendthrift at the top of the list of commercial breeding farms. The van backed carefully to the open cargo door of the plane, and the champ walked determinedly down the ramp.

An extraordinary campaign had ended, and an equally extraordinary one was about to begin. His life and mine were now changed forever. Just a mere three years earlier, I had been managing a small breeding farm in Maryland, and now I was responsible for the care of a Triple Crown winner. Heavy stuff.

The Taylors and Hills had sold half-interest in the three-time champion. To say Slew seasons and shares were in great demand is an understatement of the highest magnitude. For the owners to resist the temptation of cashing in completely is a tribute to their faith in the stallion's potential.

Like all good horses I've been around, Slew was very intelligent. He had a magnificent eye that conveyed that intelligence. He was no "lady's hunter," and you had to be on your toes when in the stall with him, or bringing him up from his paddock.

Because Slew had been so professional in all he experienced as an athlete, we had every confidence this bull of a horse would take to his new task with ease. The test mare was receptive, and our crew was ready with everything necessary to make this big moment go safely and smoothly. After more than an hour of his seeming disinterest in the matters at hand, we put the world-record syndication back in his stall as a "non-starter."

I vividly remember calling Mickey Taylor and saying, "Mick, we have a little problem." As time passed, we found Slew took a fancy to certain colors of mares. We would bring in one of that color in to get his attention, and when he nickered to her, we would swing his scheduled mare under him for the successful cover. He would be mad as fire as he dismounted, knowing we had outsmarted him.

Sometimes he would not be interested in any mare in the breeding shed, but willingly would breed her on a grassy spot next to the shed. We would breed him in the snow or rain if that was what he wanted. After all, he was Slew and we had to accommodate his book of mares, no matter what it took.

The great racehorse was as formidable in the breeding shed as he was in competition; his pregnancy rate was over 90% the first year. This was when broodmare management did not have the advantages of ultrasound technology, and other such aids as are available today. Slew was deadly with his mares.
He sired four grade I stakes winners including two champions in his initial crop. The die was cast. Other than the great Northern Dancer, no other stallion was in more demand than was Slew after his first foals began racing.

Oh, yes, Slew finally became bored with trying our collective patience. He covered his mares with enthusiasm and his fertility was among the best of the 40-plus stallions in the Spendthrift arsenal.

Many years have passed since the banner reading "Welcome Home, Champ" hung over the first stall in the U-shaped barn. Slew brought his genetic power to racing worldwide, and has contributed more to the sport than we can now measure.

I'll remember Slew for his intelligence, strength, and individuality. And I'll always remember how fortunate I was to have been a part of his legacy.

John Williams, former vice president and general manager of Spendthrift Farm, now owns Elmwood near Versailles, Ky.