On June 11, 1977, Seattle Slew, a 3-year-old colt owned by a Yakima County couple, wins the Belmont Stakes in New York. The decisive victory secures Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, following Slew's successes at the Kentucky Derby on May 7 and the Preakness Stakes in Maryland on May 21. Seattle Slew is only the 10th Triple Crown winner and the first to accomplish the feat with a perfect record.
From Dark Horse to Favorite
For a horse with such humble beginnings, Seattle Slew already had accomplished wonders. Born February 15, 1974, on a small farm near Lexington, he was not accepted for Kentucky's most prestigious 1975 summer yearling sale, partly because he was awkward-looking. He was bought at the next-best sale by Mickey Taylor (b. 1944) and Karen Taylor (b. 1944), a couple living in a mobile home in little White Swan, Washington. The Taylors got the future Triple Crown winner for $17,500, a pittance compared to the millions he would make for them.
A big bay so dark he was nearly black, the colt got his name from the Taylors' home state and the swampy area around the Florida hometown of their partner, Dr. Jim Hill, a race horse veterinarian in New York. Hill had spotted the yearling and urged the Taylors to buy him. Hill also hooked them up with a trainer, Billy Turner (b. 1940), whose stables were at Belmont Park, on Long Island just outside New York City. The new horse was clumsy at first, but soon impressed his handlers with his determination and speed. His workout times raised eyebrows around the track.
Realizing he had a special horse on his hands, Turner decided to give Slew more time to develop muscle and delayed his racing debut until the fall of the colt's second year. Seattle Slew entered only three races in 1976, but won all three convincingly -- enough so that he won an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old colt and was installed as the early favorite to win the 1977 Kentucky Derby. Audaciously, the trainer was aiming higher than that.
Planning for Greatness
As Seattle Slew headed to Florida for winter training in December 1976, Turner already was thinking about winning not just the Derby, America's most prestigious horse race, but also the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, thus capturing the Triple Crown. "I knew I had a horse with phenomenal ability, and the Derby and the Preakness were not major concerns," he said in 2002. "But I had this nagging question in the back of my mind: How in the world would we ever win the Belmont with this horse?" (Haskin).
Turner was worried about distance. The Belmont, at 1-1/2 miles, is longer than either of the first two races. The trainer believed Seattle Slew had the speed and power to beat the nation's top 3-year-olds at the shorter distances but feared that his horse's competitive nature could cause him to run too fast too soon, only to fade down the stretch in the Belmont. His winter workouts started with jogging as long as it took to get Slew to relax.
Racing sparingly had worked so far, and Turner chose to stick with that strategy. Seattle Slew ran only three more races before heading into the Kentucky Derby, all with his original jockey, Jean Cruguet (b. 1939). Slew won all three and, even though he was the most lightly raced horse in a field of 15, was the overwhelming favorite for the big race at Louisville's historic Churchill Downs. He won there despite breaking late from the starting gate and initially being boxed in by other horses. He had an easier time in the Preakness, winning at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course in near-record time.
History shows how difficult it is to secure the Triple Crown. Only nine horses had done it, starting in 1909 when the feat was first accomplished. In the 19 years leading up to Seattle Slew's attempt, eight horses had won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but only one of those -- Secretariat in 1973 -- had managed to win the Belmont.
To get the Taylors' horse ready, Turner gave him only two workouts as long as a mile; most were considerably shorter. He wanted to save his strength.
Triple Crown Triumph
Race day at Belmont was Seattle Slew Day in his owners' home state by proclamation of Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994). Heavy rain had turned the New York track to slop, giving Mickey Taylor and Billy Turner cause to worry. Their horse had yet to run on such a muddy surface, let alone one so long. He added to the drama with a late entrance. Because parked cars were blocking the usual route from his stall, Seattle Slew was 20 minutes late in getting to the paddock area.
The race, however, went almost exactly as planned. Although a horse named Spirit Level forced a faster early pace than Turner would have liked, Seattle Slew led all the way and with speed to spare. He won by four lengths. Cruguet even celebrated a little early. The jockey stood up in the stirrups about 20 yards from the finish and waved in triumph as he crossed the finish line. Nobody had seen that in a big race before, so reporters asked Cruguet what he was thinking. "I knew I wasn't at the finish line, but I was just so happy and I knew nobody was going to catch me," he said ("Cruguet Couldn't Contain ...").
Although it has become common practice, at the time Cruguet's move apparently was unprecedented. But then, so was a horse winning the Triple Crown with a perfect record. That distinction lasted more than 40 years. Affirmed won the Crown in 1978, but he had lost previously. Seattle Slew beat him later that year in the first time Triple Crown winners had ever raced. No other horse won the Triple Crown until 2015, when American Pharoah claimed it and, like Affirmed, American Pharoah had previously lost a race. Not until 2018, when Justify, who did not race at all as a 2-year-old, won the Crown with a career record of six wins and no losses, did a another horse join Seattle Slew in winning the Triple Crown without having lost a race.
Retiring in Style
Seattle Slew was syndicated for a record $12 million after his 3-year-old campaign. He retired from racing in 1978, a four-time Eclipse Award winner with a record of 14 wins and three losses and earnings of $1,208,726. And then he really began to make money for his owners. Put to stud in Kentucky, he proceeded to become a champion in the breeding shed. He sired 1,050 foals over 24 years, with his fee reaching a high of $800,000 in 1985. His offspring included 114 stakes winners and eight champions, with combined earnings of more than $84 million.
Seattle Slew died in Kentucky at age 28, having lived as long as any Triple Crown winner. Remembrances came from throughout the horse-racing community. Many recalled his bargain price. Others tried to explain what made him special as a racer. As Pat Lynch, a New York Racing Association executive, put it after Slew won at Belmont, "He'll give you two or three separate responses during a race. Most horses have only one" (Cady, 142). Cruguet, who rode him to his historic achievement, had a more poetic memory: "He was a winged horse ... All he wanted to do was run" (Sparkman, 21).