Published in the May 18 issue of The Blood-HorseGroom Tom Wade, 43, cared for and lived with Seattle Slew for more than 20 years. He shared his thoughts of the great horse with The Blood-Horse features editor Lenny Shulman.
John Tammaro was the first true horseman I was around. He taught me it was OK to love a horse. He used to say, "If the horse bites you, check the horse's teeth, and if he steps on you, call a blacksmith and check his feet, not yours." And I liked that because I've always had passion for a horse, and I needed someone to back me up and tell me it was OK. There was something that burned inside me to be around a good horse. Whichever horse was in the corner stall was the one I was attracted to. And with Slew, I landed the ultimate. I was in my early 20s, and to go home and tell my mother and father in rural Kentucky, "You ever heard of Seattle Slew? Well, your kid's looking after him." Proud moments. I thought I'd stay with him a couple of years. It didn't take long--a few weeks--before I knew it would be "till death do us part." I'd be with him as long as they would have me. I was in awe of the horse at first because of who he was. His intelligence always struck me. Taking him to the breeding shed--he was a shy breeder when he first started--and as the years went on he was smart about not wanting to jump on a mare right away. He was always very careful with maiden mares. He'd stop and look at them and stare them down, and he'd never make his move until he was totally confident that mare was ready to accept him. Seeing him breed, watching him gallop, tacking him up, putting his riders up, the way he handled himself was unlike any horse I'd ever been around. He was thinking all the time. People who knew Slew and even visitors who saw him for five minutes were drawn to his eye. He had the look of an eagle, a champion, the most beautiful amber, and to his final day we were staring eye to eye. A couple months after I started looking after him Karen Taylor came to the barn and I was nervous, so I curried him and rubbed him and ragged him and washed him and scrubbed him. Mrs. Taylor walked in the stall and I told her I hope she liked how he looks, and she said, "He doesn't like the brush, take it easy on the grooming part. He'll show you the way. Just look after him and keep him happy." And over the years when the Taylors would call in, they never asked, "How's he breeding?" or anything else. It was always: "Is he happy?" If you had Seattle Slew being mad, he was uncontrollable. You couldn't catch him, so you certainly couldn't control him. Through these last couple of tough years, I was always the guy who had to hold him for the vet, and he used to look at me when I tried to catch him as if to say, "Well, if you catch me, are you gonna feed me or are you gonna call the vet?" So I relied on Karen a lot to catch him, and never once did she walk in there and not have him lay his head right in her lap. I don't think we would have made it without the Taylors moving into the barn with me. People question how much intelligence a horse has. I'll tell you, this was a brilliant horse in several aspects of his life, whether he was breeding, training, or presenting himself to the public. Watching him not get in behind a maiden mare is the one thing that really sticks in my mind. He could be 40 yards away and he'd be giving them that eye, contemplating. He bit me a few times, but never without warning. He'd lower his head and go side to side like a bull. It was, "Get out of my way or I'm going to get you out of my way." Like everything else, he did it in a big way. He put his heart and soul into everything. It was his way of saying, "I'm not coming out of the stall now" or "Excuse me, I'm eating my hay." In a sense, he raised me. I taught him nothing; he taught me everything I know. I'm so fortunate we had all that time together, because in the last years we had a true understanding--it was a wonderful marriage. That's how marriages are--when you put a lot of time in you know which lines to cross and which not to cross.
When Queen Elizabeth came, they took photographs and my mother was proud to hang those pictures in her hairdressing shop. I appreciated the people who really loved the horse, and I liked to stand back and watch them admire him. Every time a new kid came on the block, Slew would stop and look in its stall. He was never the type of horse to get upset and start screaming. He'd take his place and pose and bow that neck and look at the horse and let it know, "This is who I am. Just behave yourself and keep your distance. You're welcome to be here, but I'm Seattle Slew." The first operation in 2000 was very emotional. Here was a 26-year-old horse, and with the anesthesia we worried whether he'd be able to get up. The night before we took him in I cried like a baby so I could be strong the next day. It's not unlike what happened here the other day. Over the weekend I cried my eyes out, then it was time to be strong for other people, not only for Mickey and Karen, but for the whole community, for everyone who's connected. When they come around you give them the big bear hug and let them cry and you have to be dry for awhile. He's blessed us with a lot of good offspring. I asked myself what Slew would want me to do now. Mickey and Karen and Albert Finney have built up a nice stable of Seattle Slews, and I think Slew would like me to be with some of those. We need some time off, but I know I want to be around some of his offspring. And around Karen and Mickey. We've become family. We're blessed. When we're in rocking chairs and 99 years old we'll be able to watch his pedigree carry on. I don't know if I'm special as a groom, but I kept two hands on the shank and the water buckets full and got my butt out of bed every morning and got to work. It's like people who own pets--they're not all great pet owners, but a lot of them have great dogs and cats. When I was down there with him the other day putting his blanket and things on him, I looked up and asked the people who were there, "Are we doing it right?" To the end, it's been an awesome responsibility.