John Polston, today at his home on Long Island.

John Polston, today at his home on Long Island.

Mike Corrado

A Groom's View of Slew: John Polston's Rub With Greatness

Published in the May 18 issue of The Blood-Horse
John Polston was one day shy of his 57th birthday when he received a call from Seattle Slew's co-owner Karen Taylor, informing him that the great horse he had rubbed for two years had died at 9 o'clock that morning. It was 25 years to the day since Slew's victory in the 1977 Kentucky Derby.

"That was my birthday present 25 years ago," Polston said. "I only spoke to Karen for a few minutes. She was really broken up and could barely talk. She said (her husband) Mickey had sat up with him 24 hours a day since last week, and assured me he didn't suffer. They'd never let him suffer. They never had any kids; Slew was their child. They had devoted their lives to him since he got sick a few years ago, repaying him for all he had done for them. If there were more people like them I'd probably still be at the racetrack."

It's been more than 20 years since Polston's held a brush and pick in his hands. Life on the backstretch is now a distant memory. He no longer misses the comforting warmth of a Thoroughbred's hide against his hands on a cold winter's morning or seeing the gleam in their coat as they parade to the post on a bright spring afternoon. Life without Seattle Slew was just too empty for him. He tried to stick around as long as he could, but he had already scaled racing's highest peak, and there was no direction to go but down. So, he left, never to return.

"After a horse like Slew, there was nothing," Polston said. "I didn't want to be around horses anymore, because I knew it wouldn't be the same. Everybody expected everything I touched to be another Seattle Slew."

It wasn't the love of horses that lured Polston to the racetrack. He was just a 16-year-old kid looking for a job, any job. When he left the racetrack, he was a 35-year-old man looking for a job, any job.

He decided spending time with his wife, Ola, and their two kids was more important to him than the daily, arduous grind of the racetrack. After driving delivery trucks and working for various companies, he finally found a job right around the corner from his house, working as a maintenance man in an apartment complex.

"There was no future for me at the racetrack," Polston said. "When you're young and by yourself, it's a good job, but when you're married and have kids, you have to find something that has decent benefits. Both my sons are grown now and I have three grandkids."

Polston was raised by his grandmother in Baltimore after his mother remarried. "I guess she didn't want to take a child with her," he said. "But we remained close, right up to the day she died. My half-brother worked with horses, and whenever I visited I'd go with him. I had no interest in horses at all. I was raised in the city, and the only horses I saw were the ones pulling carts. Who would have had any idea where I'd wind up?"

Polston got a job working for Mike Smithwick, who trained mostly jumpers on his farm in Maryland. He started out walking hots, then eventually became a groom, making $35 a week, when the stable moved up to New York. He stayed with Smithwick five years before joining brothers Dominick and Lenny Imperio. While working for Smithwick, Polston had met a young, aspiring trainer named Turner, who had also worked for Smithwick.

"Me and Billy used to go to the hunt meets together," Polston recalled. "After leaving Dominick and Lenny, I was out of a job. I saw Billy and he said he needed some help, so I went to work for him."

In the spring of 1976, Turner received four 2-year-olds off the farm whom his wife Paula had broken. Polston took a liking to one of them, a dark bay colt by Bold Reasoning, but he was given to one of the female grooms.

"He was a strong, strapping, wild-acting baby," Polston recalled. "He was a big, playful colt, and when he began training he got so strong, the girl couldn't handle him. Billy came to me and said, 'I got a colt who's big and strong and I need someone who can handle him,' so he gave him to me. I liked him right from the start. I tried to impose my will on him, but he would have nothing to do with that. His thinking was, 'We're gonna do things my way. You don't mess with me and I won't mess with you.' We came to an understanding. We had to. He was one of the strongest horses I ever laid my hands on.

"Billy spotted what we had before anyone else. I'll never forget one morning when we went out to work him. I was standing at the rail. He was supposed to work a half-mile and gallop out three-quarters. He comes rolling down the stretch, and Billy is on the pony heading back up the track waving his arms. I didn't know what was going on. Afterward, Billy kept going, 'Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!' Slew had galloped out in 1:10 and change and Billy was trying to slow him down. That's when we knew he was a special horse."

It came as no surprise to anyone in the barn when Slew went on to become the champion 2-year-old, winning the Champagne Stakes by almost 10 lengths in a stakes record 1:34 2/5. During the winter at Hialeah, the key word was "relax." Turner tried to keep Slew as calm and settled as possible, knowing he would have to harness a good deal of his speed in order to get him through the Triple Crown. "He was relaxed," Polston said, "but he was never what you'd call docile. Even when he wasn't in full training, he still was a handful to walk."

Following decisive victories in an allowance race, the Flamingo Stakes (gr. I), and the Wood Memorial (gr. I), Seattle Slew came to the Kentucky Derby undefeated in six starts. The media crush was taxing on Turner, the help, and the horse. "It was a madhouse," Polston said. "There was always a crowd of people around, and it was hard for the horses to relax, and hard for the people working with them to relax. I very seldom left the stable area. Mickey's father had begun working as the nightwatchman in New York. He and Mickey's mother lived in a camper right outside the stable area. They had this Doberman named Lance, and you didn't mess with Lance. I fell in love with Mickey's father. He was one of the most down-to-earth people I ever met. Me and him always laugh about this one incident that happened while I was grazing Slew before the Derby. There were all these photographers around, and all of a sudden a car went by and Slew reared up and literally picked me up off the ground."