Now in the dark days of winter, it is healthy to think back to sunshine and joy, to great sport and horses in the warmth of summer.
Just three quick decades ago, a seal-brown, nearly black, colt named Seattle Slew became the first and only racehorse to win the Triple Crown while undefeated. Not Secretariat, twice beaten and once disqualified by the stewards for running over an opponent prior to his Triple Crown in 1973, nor Citation, also twice beaten before his triple in 1948, had accomplished the neat trick of winning the intensely competitive series unbeaten.
So when Seattle Slew approached the Belmont Stakes, final leg of the Triple Crown, as an unbeaten champion, it was a special moment in sports, and the press corps was not slow in appreciating this.
Trainer Billy Turner said, “There would be 150 a day before the Derby, and up here at Belmont, I had press and television people every day from the time of the Wood Memorial [in mid-April] through the Belmont. There’d be a dozen photographers and TV crews. That was the height of the coverage of horse racing, and the reason for that was Secretariat had brought the world alive.”
That coverage made Turner and the Slew Crew – Dr. Jim and Sally Hill, Karen and Mickey Taylor – famous faces across the country.
Jim Hill recalled that coming into the Belmont with an unbeaten colt “was a heady time. It was an amazing feeling to be around an animal like that. And also I think I was getting a bit overprotective at the time. I didn’t want anything to go wrong. If Slew had a weak spot, it was his feet. We tried to shoe our horses about a week before the race, and when we shod Slew, the next day he was sore. We called our blacksmith, and he came racing back up from Maryland. We doped out a plan, and within a week, he was fine.”
The excitement of an unbeaten colt, trying to overcome the odds of chance and win the Triple Crown, brought out legions of racing fans.
Mickey Taylor said that “Seattle Slew was late arriving for the Belmont to be saddled because they didn’t expect 77,000 people, started parking cars in the way. Billy and the groom had to go one way to get to the backside of the barn, then found they couldn’t get through, and they had to go back and return to where they started to get to the tunnel by another route. Then once in the tunnel, Slew would just take three or four steps and stop, then another three or four steps and stop. Everyone around the horse started to get excited, but the trainer, groom, and my dad were not excited. They knew they couldn’t start the show without Slew.”
Seattle Slew did not let his public down. Karen Taylor said that “the paddock was a sight to behold to see how the crowd received him. He really put on a show. Slew was like Muhammed Ali. He would psych up his opponents in the paddock, arch his neck and do his war dance.”
In the Belmont, Seattle Slew took control of the pace, racing on the lead and galloped his opposition into defeat. Turner said, “The Belmont was the easiest race of the three.”
After the race, Sally Hill said that the owners went to a party at the offices of the Fasig-Tipton sales company, which runs the auction where Seattle Slew was sold as a yearling in Lexington, Ky. John Finney, then director of Fasig-Tipton, “told us that he got so excited when Slew crossed the finish line that he threw his binoculars, which he had for 40 years. He was that excited.
“Winning the Triple Crown was the best feeling in the world, and when we were in the winner’s circle, we couldn’t stop smiling.”
And the racing world smiled with them.