Seattle Slew in the Winner's Circle after the 1977 Belmont Stakes

Seattle Slew in the Winner's Circle after the 1977 Belmont Stakes

Tony Leonard

BackTrack: Unbeaten Seattle Slew Sweeps Triple Crown

BackTrack looks back at the Belmont Stakes wins of the Triple Crown winners.

Seattle Slew is about out of answers, but only because racing is about out of questions. Speed?—Plenty, whenever needed. Stamina?—Name the distance and he'll run it. Heart?—See For The Moment and Cormorant. Class?—Absolutely. 

One blank left unfilled on the report is that beside History. This is up to outsiders. Where does he fit in the annals of the Turf? Seattle Slew is not concerned personally, here, all he does is run. It is a free choice to those who watch him and hear of him to decide whether he is at or near the top of his kind. 

Comparison of horses of different years is universally said to be impossible, and it is universally engaged in—with relish. All foals are born amid hope of success, a dream of glory, but not even the horse breeder—perhaps the most optimistic of human forms—has ever had any solid ground for looking at a new foal and musing: "Looks like the one for the Triple Crown. Probably go undefeated." 

Until last week, there never had been such a horse, never a winner of the American classics—the Kentucky Derby (G1), the Preakness (G1), the Belmont (G1)—that never had tasted defeat. There was much precedent for winning the Triple Crown, nine examples of the ultimate for a 3-year-old, but there was no precedent for an unbeaten Triple Crown winner. 

On the surface, then, it might be presumed that the darkish colt which arrived in a stall at the White Horse Acres of breeder Ben Castleman three years ago by now would have automatic acclaim as one of the great ones. This is not quite the case, however. As the survey of trainers on the facing page shows, even those who have watched him are not unanimous in mouthing the word "great." 

As an unbeaten Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew stands alone in all of American racing, but as a Triple Crown winner to which some would deny the highest accolades, he is not without predecessor. 

More than 30 years ago, Assault swept the classics, beginning as an 8-1 shot at Churchill Downs and winning by eight lengths, moving to eke out a narrow victory at 3-2 in the Preakness, then romping in the Belmont as, of all things, a slight second choice. 

"A year ago at this time Assault had done everything asked of him in sweeping the famed Triple Crown," Arthur Daley wrote for the New York Times the year Assault was 4 (1947). Yet, he was not acclaimed as a super star, Daley recalled. "Great? Heavens, no. It was too soon for that. Perhaps he was just the best of a bad lot of 3-year-olds." 

Well, Assault stubbed his toe a time or two—five times in fact—after his Belmont, and the I-told-you-sos came easily, but by the end of his 4-year-old season he had demonstrated that a Triple Crown winner needs to be taken seriously. The little horse threw in some superlative efforts, such as beating Stymie in the Butler Handicap while carrying 135 pounds. 

"I had thought this year's 3-year-old crop was far inferior," said Eddie Arcaro late in Assault's Triple Crown year, "and I could only give Assault credit for beating a lot of bad horses, but (now) Assault has proven himself to me (winning the Pimlico Special)."

So, the refrain of best of a bad lot has been used on Triple Crown winners before. It is an easy line to master, seems eternally fresh, and can be used at virtually any point. As a one-liner it ranks right up there with "he'd be a champion in any other year," which was carved in stone for recital whenever a single colt runs second to a brilliant one on several occasions. (If taken literally, this latter evaluation would indicate that Sham, for instance, would have handled Citation, Swaps, and any other Derby winner except the one he ran against, Secretariat.) 

As evaluations, neither the "best of a bad lot" nor the "any other year" rhetoric gets much accomplished. When it comes to jingles of the Turf, we much prefer another: "It isn't just what he did; it's the way he did it."

Put that one beside a colt that set a record for a mile in the Champagne (G1) while winning by 10 lengths, and then won the Wood Memorial (G1) and all the classics—including one of the fastest runnings of the Preakness—never really punished, and you have something out of the ordinary. Make the lifetime record nine for nine, and you have something really special. What you have is Seattle Slew.  

The Look 

On Belmont Day, the last morning of the argosy of the trilogy, trainer Billy Turner noticed something different about Seattle Slew. For many months, he had seen him daily, for hours, watched him in the morning, touched him, studied him. Now, he saw something slightly different, and it pleased him. 

"His eyes were not with us. He looked different, I told Mike Kennedy (exercise rider) 'I've never seen him so determined.' " 

Seattle Slew was to gallop around the huge, 1 1/2 -mile Belmont track which has been his headquarters for most of a year, but Kennedy pulled him up after only a half-mile. 

"He was afraid he could not hold him," Turner said. "I had warned the outriders, too. This horse might have gone around two or three times." 

Safely returned to Turner's barn, Seattle Slew was bathed and then walked around a ring nearby, still the darling of photographers and television crews. Watching were some of his people, "the troops" they call themselves. (Mickey and Karen Taylor own the horse in partnership with Dr. Jim Hill and his wife Sally, and all have been close to the colt virtually every day since his 3-year-old campaign began in Florida.) 

Were they glad it was about over? 

"We will be if it has a happy ending," Mickey Taylor said, but Billy Turner, often one to joke, said, "Oh, no. I wish there was one more race, actually." Then he wandered off to talk with jockey Jean Cruguet. 

"The Preakness was the least hectic of the three races," said Paula Turner, the trainer's wife, who exercises runners of a morning and is preparing several horses to try to qualify for the World Champion Three-Day Event in 1978. "This race, the Belmont, has been second only to Churchill Downs as far as being hectic goes." 

Slew's handlers are ardent admirers of the colt, but they realize that no horse can go through a fall, winter, and spring without a loss and not be lucky. necessarily take good luck, but it certainly requires an absence of bad luck. 

"You can make your own luck to a degree," said Hill. "I immunized him for everything I could think of, and we worm him regularly, but still, this entire year has been like a dream. It just seems that everything has gone right, and if it continues to go right for a few more hours, we'll be the happiest people you ever want to see." 

Buck Jones was in charge, insuring that the last hours continued to go "like a dream." A Pinkerton guard who has watched over Secretariat and Ruffian, Jones said security for major horses has been increased in recent years. 

"Before Secretariat, all you had for horses like Damascus was a man at the barn around the clock. With Secretariat they started having guards accompany the horse to the race. I was one of four Pinkertons assigned to Secretariat. I lose about five pounds everytime I take one of them to the track." 

The last leg of the journey was hectic, and controversial. While the troops and hundreds of others milled in the paddock—part of a Belmont Day throng of 71,026—Seattle Slew continued for some minutes to be noticeable by his absence. Several days later, a hearing was held to determine whether Turner would be fined for being late to the paddock, or whether the explanation that the crowded parking lot caused Seattle Slew to take a longer way than usual was sufficient. The stewards did not accept the explanation and fined Turner $200. 

The delay put post time back a few minutes, which merely postponed the inevitable fate of the seven horses waiting for Slew. Second choice to the 2-5 Seattle Slew was Run Dusty Run, Mrs. Robert Lehmann's consistent Dust Commander colt which has been Seattle Slew's Sham through the spring. Second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness, Run Dusty Run has earned a reputation as a tough, consistent colt that always gives his run. Trainer Smiley Adams was displeased with Darrel McHargue's ride in the Preakness and replaced him for the Belmont with Sandy Hawley. 

Third choice was Darby Dan Farm's Sanhedrin, a lean chestnut colt by Good Counsel which had closed well to be second in the Wood Memorial and third in the Derby. Bred by Mrs. John W. Galbreath, wife of the Darby Dan owner, Sanhedrin is typical of the Darby Dan classic candidates of recent years—a late-developing, late-running type, a classics type Darby Dan wants. 

In part because the colt is not robust, trainer Lou Rondinello had skipped the Preakness and prepped Sanhedrin for the Belmont in the Peter Pan; Sanhedrin put in his usual late burst, but missed by a head to Spirit Level. As the Kentucky Derby's third-place colt, Sanhedrin deserved his role as a leading contender, but he had not won a race in seven starts at 3. 

Next in the betting was the well-named Iron Constitution, which trainer Tommy Root Jr. has had ready for battle seven times in seven weeks. Harry Mangurian's Iron Ruler colt has thrived on his busy schedule. He defeated Cormorant in the Withers (gr. II), then was second to Seattle Slew in the Preakness and second to Cormorant in the Jersey Derby (gr. I). His chance seemed to depend on there being a fast pace, and horses coming back to him.

Sent off at 16-1 was Spirit Level, the Peter Pan winner which carries the silks of Meadow Stable, the silks of recent Belmont winners Riva Ridge and Secretariat. A Quadrangle colt trained by Steve DiMauro, Spirit Level had won three consecutive races going into the 1 1/2-mile test.  

When the Pinkertons and Turner arrived at the paddock with Seattle Slew for the Belmont, no time was wasted in tacking him up and getting him into the parade. Moments later, he took his walk through the wall of noise, through the tunnel leading from the paddock to the track, the cheers reverberating. He was very much keyed up, but it was a coolish day and he did not break out. He was ready. The powerful Bold Reasoning colt—foaled at White Horse Acres, purchased for $17,500 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky sale, broken in Maryland, lauded everywhere—was ready for 1 1/2 miles. Cruguet reached up and gave the colt's left ear an affectionate pat and a little tug, stroked his neck, and went to work. 

Seattle Slew is an intimidating force, probably to other horses as well as to people. By the time of the Belmont, his opposition was cowed. 

What he had faced in the Derby and Preakness were a pair of colts, For The Moment in the one case, Cormorant in the other, whose boards of strategy had decided their one shot was to try to run with him, try to get to the bottom of him, and hope that they still had more to give. Behind them in those races were horses and riders content to let someone else go on the block, hoping that, in the end, both would come back. 

By Belmont time, things had changed. What Seattle Slew had running against him in the Belmont basically were a lot of opponents waiting for him to beat them. Spirit Level went with him early, but was content with Seattle Slew's controlled pace. The track, listed as muddy, was several seconds slower than its best, but even so the fractional time of :48 2/5 for a half-mile was such as to maximize the chances of a front-runner of Slew's ability. 

Hawley moved Run Dusty Run closer as they wound out of the long turn and settled into the backstretch, and Sanhedrin was fourth, closer than usual in the early part. Still, the grouping behind and beside Seattle Slew were not putting him to the test. The others were not asking anything of him. They were just there, waiting to get smacked in the face. 

The futility of the chase was not completely apparent until more than a mile had been run. Spirit Level and Run Dusty Run had moved abreast of the leader, as Cruguet sat still. Everything in control, but no horse can be absolutely certain of getting 12 furlongs until he really does it, so there was some question left of the outcome when Sanhedrin made a quick spurt into second and Run Dusty Run continued to stay in tough. 

Nearing the quarter-mile pole, Seattle Slew burst away, losing touch in perhaps six strides, and he had a daylight margin while straightening for the final three-sixteenths of a mile. Through the stretch, Cruguet hit him lightly a couple of times, but it was a needless gesture. Run Dusty Run, gritty colt that he is, came back on the inside and passed Sanhedrin again to be second, assuring that the order of the first three was the same as in the Kentucky Derby. 

Mr. Red Wing, carrying the Foolish Pleasure silks—those of John Greer—ran on well enough to be fourth, Iron Constitution was an unnoticeable fifth, and Spirit Level faded to sixth, beating Sir Sir and Make Amends. (The last-named broke down during the race.) 

Cruguet had won the Mother Goose (G1) earlier in the day and was a thoroughly happy Frenchman. He also for a moment was an overly exuberant one, for he stood up, prior to the finish, and waved his whip, just the sort of thing to make a trainer's heart leap to his Adam's apple. 

The vision of his rider tumbling to the turf a few feet from the finish may crop up now and again in a Billy Turner nightmare, but it did not happen on Belmont Day. Cruguet stayed aboard, and Seattle Slew glided under the wire, America's 10th Triple Crown winner. The margin was four lengths and could have been greater. The time was 2:29 3/5 and could have been swifter. The Belmont, and world, record is Secretariat's 2:24, but the track was slow for Seattle Slew. Anyway, the only time to which it is significant to compare Seattle Slew's is that of Run Dusty Run. 

"I've been telling everyone this would be the easiest race of the three," Mickey Taylor said, and he was right. 
"Relaxation was the whole story," said Cruguet. "I knew if I could make him relax, I'd have no trouble." 

"We knew up front that this wasn't a track for record breaking," said Turner. "He does what he has to do. If something presses him it's like his first race this year, when he destroyed the track record (seven furlongs at Hialeah), but it's hard to find a horse to press him." 

Several of the beaten riders noted that the lack of a pace, the lack of anyone to try to test Slew early, hurt whatever chance they might have had, but that was only a natural reaction to the most recent race. In the Derby and Preakness, there had been plenty of early speed, but half of it had been Seattle Slew's, and still the late runners could not get to him.  

The Dream
Several times we had seen what was there to be witnessed last Saturday—a Derby-Preakness winner, his every step cheered, prancing from the Belmont paddock to try once more to hold the winning hand. Usually, the story had gone sour, but four years ago we had Secretariat, and now we have Seattle Slew. 

There can be happy endings, but, perhaps, nothing ever can be perfect. There were imperfections even in the Slew story. 

A personal tragedy had touched the Seattle Slew troops prior to the Preakness, when Mrs. Susan Small was critically injured when a horse fell with her. Susan Small is the daughter of Burley Cocks, a veteran trainer who had been instrumental in guiding and launching the career of Billy Turner. Mrs. Small and her husband, Doug Jr., train some 2-year-olds for the Taylors and Hills at their Pennsylvania farm. By Belmont time, reports on her condition were encouraging. 

There also were bothersome administrative details. One was the minor question of the delay in the paddock and also there was a matter involving Jim Hill. New York rules prohibit a practicing veterinarian on the race track also having any ownership of a horse campaigning there. Joseph Boyd, a member of the State Racing and Wagering Board, said that recently Hill had come to the board and turned in his license as a practicing vet (he has not been very active as a vet in recent months). 

"We issued him a temporary owner's license," said Boyd. "Everyone was very cooperative about the entire thing." 

Thus, there was no problem involving the Belmont Stakes, but Seattle Slew had run at New York tracks four times previously at 2 and 3. The matter of the previous races, Boyd described as an "on-going thing." 

Well, those may have been blots on the horizon, but Mrs. Small appeared to be recovering, and the other matters may be bothersome, at worst. Nothing spoiled the Belmont or the Triple Crown.

"Winning a Triple Crown is something any horseman dreams about all his life. You dream about it, but you don't expect it," said Turner. "More than that, you don't expect to do it as easily as this horse has." 

Ahead are rest, and some decisions about Seattle Slew's future.

''I'm quite sure they'll keep him and not syndicate," Turner said. "Mickey said, 'If I have to spend $2,000 a week for insurance, I might as well keep the son-of-a-gun myself.' "

The Belmont was followed by a succession of parties, Turner and the owners being ushered from one to another—the Belmont trustees' room, then the roof above the pressbox, and then there were separate celebrations, at Billy Turner's hangout, Esposito's, and at the Fasig-Tipton office, both near the track. 

Eventually that evening, the trainer got back to the barn to see his horse. It had been some nine months since they had made their first start together. What Billy Turner had done for all those months was to harness the exceptional energies of this creature, walk the narrow line between fitness and rankness, relax him enough, but not dull him. What he had done in those months was help him reach the most unimaginable potential, to turn him into an unbeaten Triple Crown winner. 

What Billy Turner did then was to go into a stall and cry.

SEATTLE SLEW won the praise and admiration of most New York trainers in his brilliant Champagne Stakes (G1) victory as a 2-year-old. Now, after becoming the 10th Triple Crown winner, early evaluations have been confirmed and many doubters convinced. Equally praised is the job done by Seattle Slew's trainer, Billy Turner. 

Backstretch comment at Belmont Park is a theme with variations—Seattle Slew is an extraordinary horse and may or may not have been beating good 3-year-olds, an irrelevancy because he has done what he had to do. Many still hesitate to use the word "great" for any horse, but many hint at it. 

Sid Watters, trainer of 1970 juvenile champion Hoist the Flag: "I know he's a pretty damned good horse. I compare him with as good a horse as I've ever seen, including Secretariat. He's not only a good horse, he's been handled to perfection. Moreover, there would be a lot more good horses—maybe not as good—if they were handled like this horse. Some are crucified. These owners were patient, and Billy Turner is a thorough horseman." 

Lucien Laurin, trainer of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat: "I think he's a great horse, no getting away from it. The greatest? No, as far as I'm concerned I think Secretariat is the best. Up to a mile, Forego might have a hard time to handle him. He's a fast horse." 

John Nerud, trainer of 1968 Horse of the Year Dr. Fager: "I think Seattle Slew is a good horse. He's undefeated; they haven't asked him to do anything he hasn't done. There is considerable criticism of the times of his races and the fields he has met, but he already had shown he can run fast as a 2-year-old and none of us can know the exact class of the other horses until they run as 4-year-olds. If they want to make comparisons, which I am not fond of doing, they can criticize this horse for the speed of his races, but by the same token they can criticize Secretariat for getting beat three times by ordinary horses, and they can criticize Dr. Fager, for he couldn't be rated, was intractable. If you are looking for the infallible horse, I believe you'll have to catch him in our next lifetime." 

Phil G. Johnson, trainer of 15 stakes winners: "I think the horse is every bit as good as Secretariat. He just does it differently. When I was very young my father in Chicago was a fight fan. That was when Joe Louis fought. He'd take me to see him, and then he'd say 'we'll go to see it again on Movietone News.' You never knew the punch that did it until you saw Movietone News. Then, in slow motion, you would see that left jab—it didn't go more than three or four inches. The next three or four punches the guy didn't even feel them; he was out. That's the way Seattle Stew does it. He does it quick. 

"I don't think these are bad 3-year-olds. Cormorant was the key. He is a good colt, and Slew put him away in 50 yards in the Preakness (G1). That is what is called class. He was playing with Spirit Level here. His Champagne was comparable with anything Secretariat did as a 2-year-old, and his Preakness was as good as Secretariat's. I hope Turner gets the credit he deserves—keeping some horse back and having some horse left coming up to the Belmont (G1)." 

John Russell, trainer of Susan's Girl, etc.: "I really like him because of his determination and courage. Whether the crop of 3-year-olds is good, bad, or ordinary is irrelevant because he is in a class by himself. He gets done what he has to do very easily in the first mile. From then on it is academic, so it is hard to say whether he is the greatest of all time—or far below it." 

Frank (Pancho) Martin, trainer of Sham, etc.: "I always feel very high about the horse—because he's a good horse. You've got to like him. From the time he started he showed he could run. I was betting even money after the Wood Memorial (G1) that if he got to the three races he'd win the Triple Crown. I don't know how any horseman who has been in the business long can knock Seattle Slew. Every time, he win impressive; how can you knock that? They say he's never beat anybody—he beat the ones he ran against! The trainer did a good job, no question about it. He picked the races, and he got the horse to them in top condition." 

LeRoy Jolley, trainer of Foolish Pleasure and Honest Pleasure: "I would say that Slew was the more consistent of the two and Secretariat was the more brilliant. Secretariat ran some dull races while this colt never does. On the other hand, the style with which Secretariat swept the classics, and his record times in the races, makes all other horses pale by comparison. Slew is a nice, honest, hard-hitting colt, but I don't think he is a Secretariat."  

Jim Conway, trainer of Chateaugay, etc.: "This has to be a far better than average horse who has been extremely well handled. Whether or not he beat anyone, he beat all the horses that ran against him, and you can't ask for more. He's got a good forearm, is far better than average looking, too." 

Syl Veitch, trainer of Phalanx, Counterpoint, etc.: "I think he's the best of an ordinary lot. You can't call him great yet. If he was in this race today (against Forego) and beat a few of those horses, then it would be something else." 

Laz Barrera, trainer of Bold Forbes: "I think he's a very, very good horse, very well handled by his trainer. You have to like a horse that's never been beaten, and I've never seen him being abused yet in any race. I do think Secretariat had a better horse running behind him—Sham." 

Woody Stephens, trainer of Cannonade, Never Bend, etc.: "I've liked him ever since the Champagne last year, when he was good enough to run a mile in 1:34 2/5. I thought he was just outstanding, and I thought he'd win the Triple Crown all along. Billy Turner has done a marvelous job all along. The colt looks like he'd be a little nervous, if you let him. He's just done a wonderful job that way, handled him so carefully at Louisville, showed him everything, did everything with him, I noticed all that. I'm happy to see him get through the Triple Crown." 

Allen Jerkens, trainer of Beau Purple, Onion, etc.: "Great, no question about it. Well managed, well trained, well ridden. That nervous energy, they've been able to use. Sometimes it gets to be too much, but they handled it."