John Polston's Rub With Greatness (Cont.)

Another incident two days before the Derby, involving Polston and the regular nightwatchman, was kept quiet. "Nobody was supposed to feed Slew except me," Polston said. "But he went in there and put alfalfa down in Slew's stall. I got mad and said, 'Man, you know better than that.' He said something smart, and me and him got into it. The guys walked me away, and when I got back, the police were there. They arrested me on assault charges. What was funny about the story is that I was arrested and released on bail, and never left the front gate of the racetrack. Track security took care of the whole thing. I realized then how important it was to have a good horse. After the altercation, Jim (co-owner Hill) went over to Billy and the first thing out of his mouth was: 'Fire him.' But neither Billy nor Mickey listened to him."

Polston knew he was going to be in the limelight, so he went out and bought himself a three-piece powder blue suit for $100. He watched the Derby from the rail, and when he saw Slew break badly, it didn't bother him at all. "Once he got to the lead, I said, 'Well, that's it.' I knew they couldn't beat him."

Instead of coming out of the race tired, Slew was a wild horse. He had run like an angry bronc, bullying his way through traffic, and he was still angry after the race. "It was the only time I was scared of him," Polston said. "He was so high-strung that night, he was evil, just evil. I couldn't believe how wound tight he was. It was like he hadn't even been in a race. I had to take him from the hotwalker, and he ran over me a couple of times. I'd never seen him like that before. After the race, we had a couple of beers outside the barn. And Mickey had some champagne brought in. We bedded Slew down, and I bedded down right along with him."

After winning the Preakness, Slew was brought back home to Belmont and finally seemed relaxed. On June 11, he easily won the Belmont Stakes, becoming the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history. It had been a long, hard road, but he was now a living legend destined for immortality. "After the race, I put Slew to bed," Polston said, "then went home, took a bath and went to bed myself. I was drained."

Following the Triple Crown, times were difficult, as friction between Turner and the Hills and Taylors grew, beginning with the decision to run Slew in the Swaps Stakes three weeks after the Belmont, which resulted in the colt's first career defeat. Polston liked Turner and liked the Taylors, and it was hard for him to watch their impending breakup unfold. "I didn't know all the details, but I really enjoyed working for Billy," he said. "I knew Billy before I knew the Taylors and the Hills. You could walk up to him and ask him for 20 dollars, and whether he knew you or not, he'd give it to you. Billy is one of those happy-go-lucky guys, but he really didn't like the publicity."

Finally, that winter, Turner was fired, and Slew was turned over to Doug Peterson. "When Billy left, he just wished me good luck," Polston said. "I could tell he was hurt. I still couldn't believe a guy who had just won the Triple Crown would get fired. We all knew Billy liked to drink, but as far as I'm concerned he was always a good trainer. Mickey asked me to stay on with the new guy, and I said OK. But I didn't like Doug. Mickey made it clear from the beginning that Doug was the boss. While in Florida, I had a death in the family, and needed to be with my mother in Baltimore. When I told Doug, he wouldn't let me go. He said they needed me there. I said to him, 'I'll tell you what, I'm going to be by my mother's side, and I don't give a damn what you say.' That was it. I left, and never came back. It was very tough having to watch Slew the rest of that year, especially when he got sick and almost died. I felt helpless."

Polston stayed away from the track for a year, spending time with his family in New York. He returned and "knocked around a little," working for several trainers, then left for good in 1980. He missed the track in the beginning, but eventually lost all interest in horses.

"I'm pretty content now," he said. "I've kept in touch with Mickey. We talked about Slew constantly, first over the phone and then by e-mail. Because of Slew I'm in the history books. I rubbed the only undefeated Triple Crown winner. Nobody can say that. I have my picture in the racing Hall of Fame, and that's something my grandkids can see."