There have been 12 Triple Crown winners in horse racing history, but only one of these has the distinction of being undefeated throughout their conquest of the crown. Seattle Slew never lost a race until after completing the sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. When he retired his record was an amazing 14-2-0 from 17 starts and his earnings were just over $1.2 million dollars. What’s more, Seattle Slew became a media celebrity the likes of which thoroughbred racing had never seen.
A Racing Star is Born
The day after Valentine’s Day in 1974 a dark brown colt became the newest addition to the farm of Ben S. Castleman. The horse was distinguished by a small patch of white hair near the left rear hoof. Castleman thought highly enough of the colt to enter him in a yearling auction hosted by Fasig-Tipton. He didn’t even have a name yet.
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Mickey and Karen Taylor were blue collar working people from Washington. They had owned horses for four or five years, racing them mainly on the circuits of their home state. The results were less than stellar. A friend proposed the idea of a partnership and one of the first horses the group purchased was Castleman’s young colt. The Taylors named the colt for their state’s most famous city and also for the sloughs that were used by local lumbermen to float heavy logs.
The group of owners then set about finding a trainer for their new prospects. Obtaining a big name trainer proved to be difficult. The stable hadn’t any previous successes to market themselves on. They ultimately took a chance on Billy Turner. Turner was a friend of theirs and trained horses to race on the small Maryland circuits. It was a gamble because, like the owners, Turner didn’t have a strong track record of success.
Champion Two-Year-Old Racehorse
Turner decided to make Seattle Slew’s debut at Belmont Park in New York on September 20, 1976. The colt was impressive, winning the race by five lengths. But he displayed a nervous trait that would become a regular part of his racing routine. Seattle Slew pranced as he was led to the track and racing fans began to call this his “war dance.” Behind the scenes Turner did not like the habit. Horses that evidence nervousness often develop other problems like ulcers.
In October, Turner stepped the horse up to the allowance class and Seattle Slew won again. The victory was enough to inspire Turner to put Seattle Slew in the Champagne Stakes. The colt reeled off his most amazing victory thus far, besting the other horses by almost ten lengths.
Even though he only started in three races during his two-year-old year, the victories were enough for Seattle Slew to be named Champion Two-Year-Old at the Eclipse Awards. All the pieces were in place for a phenomenal run in 1977, and Turner began to set his sights on the Triple Crown.
A Run For Glory
America was still celebrating the 1973 Triple Crown victory of Secretariat when Seattle Slew began his remarkable 1977. It had only been four short years since Big Red won the Belmont in a manner which has yet to be equaled.
For Kentucky Derby preparation, Turner chose races in the mild winter climes of Florida and the bitter cold of Aqueduct. In Florida, Seattle Slew broke track records. His victory in the Wood Memorial was by almost four lengths, dominant enough to make him the favorite heading into the Kentucky Derby.
Seattle Slew was a mere 1-2 on the toteboard when he entered the starting gate at Churchill Downs in May of 1977. Those who bet on him were rewarded with an exciting performance even if not a healthy win ticket. The race was significant because it marked the first time Slew contested a race from off the pace. He normally went to the front and stayed there. But things were not to be that way in the Kentucky Derby. A poor start forced Seattle Slew to be taken in hand by his jockey. He managed to settle into a a nice stride and run at the leader to late to win by a little more than a length. It spoke well of the horse’s versatility.
In the Preakness there was a new shooter to challenge Seattle Slew. Cormorant was also a speed horse and his trainer expected that there would be a speed duel between the two horses. It was believed that such a duel would compromise the chances of Slew, but he managed to survive the challenge and again win by a length.
Many thought that the tough battles in the first two races would be the undoing of Seattle Slew in the third event, the Belmont Stakes. Seattle Slew responded with his most dominant performance of the Triple Crown series, winning the race by four lengths. He became the first and only horse to achieve the honor undefeated.
Seattle Slew Defeated After The Triple Crown
Hollywood Park was eager to capitalize on the success and popularity of Seattle Slew. They offered Turner and Slew’s owners a purse of $400,000 to enter the Swaps Stakes. Even though Slew had nothing to prove, the colt’s connections took the bait. The decision proved to be a disaster and the only significant blemish on the colt’s record. Seattle Slew never got involved in the race and finished 4th, well beaten by his rivals. Many thought the horse was simply tired following his earlier campaign.
The reality is that Seattle Slew may have been suffering some injuries that had begun to accumulate. Turner decided that the best course of action was to sideline Slew for the remainder of 1977 and give him a much needed break.
When the horse returned to action in 1978, there were tempered expectations. Many racing fans had forgotten about Seattle Slew. They had a new hero to cheer for. Affirmed had appeared in the shadow of Seattle Slew to claim his own Triple Crown victory in 1978. Furthermore, 1978 saw big changes for the horse. Turner was dismissed as his trainer and jockey Jean Cruguet was replaced. The new connections settled on a bold course of action. They were going after Affirmed.
The Marlboro Cup would become the first race in history to become a battle of former Triple Crown winners. Seattle Slew versus Affirmed. Most people felt like Affirmed had the advantage and would make short work of the older horse. In the race, Seattle Slew surged to lead while Affirmed stalked his hot pace and waited for the horse to tire. It never happened. Seattle Slew kept going and outlasted Affirmed to stake a claim as the best horse still competing.
In October of 1978 a rematch between the two horses was set for the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. The race garnered so much attention that CBS chose to televise it nationally. Seattle Slew was bringing racing a level of attention that was on a par with the Super Bowl and other professional sports. The race turned out to be anticlimactic. Seattle Slew broke from the gate in a blaze and never looked back. Affirmed’s saddle slipped and his jockey was almost thrown. Slew was awarded the victory but Affirmed would forever have an excuse.
What is strange is that despite beating Affirmed twice, Seattle Slew was outvoted for Horse of the Year honors and the award was given to Affirmed. This left a sour taste in the mouths of many horse racing fans who felt that Slew should have been given the honor based on his two head-to-head victories.
Seattle Slew in Retirement
Like all great racing champions, Seattle Slew was destined to spend his retirement at stud. Few could have known that he would be almost as dominant as a stud as he was on the racetrack. The colt stood at Spendthrift Farm In Lexington Kentucky for seven years and then moved to Three Chimneys Farm.
Some of his immediate successes at stud included Swale, Landaluce, and Slew O’ Gold. A.P. Indy and Surfside followed. All had massive success on the race track, but A.P. Indy has also distinguished himself as a sire. The line of Seattle Slew has thrived more than that of most other Triple Crown winners.
When Seattle Slew passed away in 2002 at the age of 28, it was 25 years to the day since his Kentucky Derby victory. He died in his sleep. The horse’s stall was eventually given to Smarty Jones, winner of the 2004 Kentucky Derby.
As a tribute, the entire body of Seattle Slew was buried. It is common for only the head, heart, and hooves of famous race horses to be buried. But Seattle Slew was given the ultimate honor by having his whole body interred. He stands in racing history as a champion of humble origins, something that makes him resonate with many fans.
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