Perhaps no other sport lends itself so well to looking backward as horse racing. Although any sport worth its salt has a history, the traditions of horse racing and the importance of past racehorses and horsemen play a major role in what happens today in racing.
A part of the charm of racing, of its pageantry and proud heritage, lies in the connection that today has with yesterday, not to mention all the things of import that happened a decade or three in the past.
Furthermore, as horseplayers, we continually look backward as we evaluate form. It is essentially impossible to assess what a horse might do or be capable of doing without knowing what its past performance has been.
So the past is vital to horse racing.
And it is not surprising that the segments of society that are ignorant of their own history, not to mention the history of nations and cultures, are entirely out of step with racing and that they entirely perplex the administrators of the sport trying to lure new fans to the spectacle of Thoroughbreds racing.
For those of us who feel the pulse of history, however, the Thoroughbred offers peculiar pleasures. In what other context than racing could the smell and sight and sound of horses propel us backward three decades to a time when the exhilaration of the racetrack was the essence of a social afternoon.
In 1977, racing was riding the crest of a wave of popular interest sparked by the great Secretariat, who became the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century and raced across sports pages like a beam of light. Nor had the sport begun to feel the pinch as its immense base of fans began to age or as state governments began to operate other forms of gambling as revenue streams.
In those seemingly simpler times 32 years ago, the most important horse in America was Seattle Slew. The 3-year-old colt had crushed his opposition leading up to the Triple Crown. The nearly black colt overcame adversity to win the Kentucky Derby, then traveled to Maryland and won the Preakness.
He approached the Belmont Stakes as an unbeaten champion. No Triple Crown winner had ever completed the difficult series while unbeaten, but Seattle Slew was a very special horse.
He was fast, but he wasn’t a sprinter. He had stamina, but he wasn’t a plodder. So dark that he was actually rather hard to see in the black and white photographs of the day, Seattle Slew was a special horse.
He combined the excitement of speed with the control of a professional.
He was owned by a quartet of personable young men and women who became part of the bright, young face of racing a generation or so ago.
And the dark horse was accessible. Bought out of a select yearling sale for only $17,500 when a lot of people had that kind of money to spend on a racehorse, Seattle Slew was like hitting the lottery – repeatedly.
Every time the colt won, the story became more exciting, the tension revved up a little more. And Seattle Slew came through, winning the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown.
He was so good that, at the time, he made it seem easy.