The Life and Death of Seattle Slew

(As a follow-up to Secretariat, I am posting this rather lengthy blog on Seattle Slew, combining several features I’ve written over the years to form one comprehensive story)

It was nine o’clock in the morning on May 7, 2002—25 years to the day since Seattle Slew’s historic victory in the Kentucky Derby. The great Thoroughbred gave one final look at his devoted owners, Karen and Mickey Taylor, who, as usual, were by his side, and with his eyes, he let them know, as the Sioux warriors would say before going to battle, “It is a good day to die.”

Then, with the same class and dignity he displayed throughout his 28 years of life, he closed his eyes and passed quietly away. Even in death, he did it with style. He knew no other way. Seattle Slew was something wild and beautiful. On the track, he could be as swift and lethal as a falcon in a dive or soar as gracefully as an egret on gossamer wings. He was, in every sense of the word, a Thoroughbred.

John Polston was one day shy of his 57th birthday when he received a call from Karen Taylor, informing him that the great horse he had rubbed for two years had died that morning.

“I only spoke to Karen for a few minutes,” Polston said. “She was really broken up and could barely talk. She said Mickey had sat up with him 24 hours a day since last week, and assured me he didn’t suffer. They’d never let him suffer. They never had any kids; Slew was their child. They had devoted their lives to him since he got sick a few years ago, repaying him for all he had done for them. If there were more people like them I’d probably still be at the racetrack.”

Life without Seattle Slew was just too empty for Polston. He tried to stick around as long as he could, but he had already scaled racing’s highest peak, and there was no direction to go but down. So, he left, never to return.

“After a horse like Slew, there was nothing,” Polston said. “I didn’t want to be around horses anymore, because I knew it wouldn’t be the same. Everybody expected everything I touched to be another Seattle Slew.”

This amazing package of speed, class, and power was purchased for the rummage-sale price of $17,500 at the 1975 Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale. It was only appropriate that Slew should sell at this particular sale. If you look out the window of the Fasig-Tipton office on Newtown Pike you could just about make out the rolling pastures that were once part of Ben Castleman’s White horse Acres. It was here that an awkward, nondescript son of Bold Reasoning romped across the fields as a foal and was later prepared to meet his destiny in the sales ring only a short distance away.

The foursome destined to ride along on the dark bay comet were Washington lumberman Mickey Taylor and his wife, Karen, and New York veterinarian Jim Hill and his wife, Sally. Looking to spend no more than $12,000 to $13,000, it took a hard, swift elbow by Karen into the ribs of her husband to convince him to keep going. The Hills had already left and were in New York at the time, because Jim Hill was operating on a horse the following day. This was the colt they wanted, but he was already going for several thousands of dollars more than they wanted to spend. It was Karen’s no so subtle encouragement that finally got them the horse. From that elbow was born a dynasty that has been growing steadily for decades. Slew went on to earn more than $1.2 million, then was syndicated for $12 million. His offspring have earned more than $75 million and he appears in the pedigree of many of racing’s greatest stars. As Mickey Taylor said, “That turned out to be a helluva good elbow.”

Seattle Slew was purchased with the intention of running him in the five-furlong Riley Allison Futurity at Sunland Park in New Mexico, but their trainer, Dave Hofmans, had run out stall space at San Luis Rey Downs training center, where the Hills and Taylors’ other horses were stabled. Because the immature Seattle Slew was not likely to make the Riley Allison, it was decided to send him to Billy Turner’s wife Paula in Maryland to be broken.

It was in March of 1976 that trainer Billy Turner received four 2-year-olds off the farm. Seattle Slew still hadn’t been named, and Turner was far from enamored with the colt, who was so big and clumsy he was nicknamed “Baby Huey,” after the gawky cartoon character. “He was so clumsy galloping he would launch himself off his hind legs and land in a pile,” Jim Hill recalled.

Polston, who had been working for Turner, took a liking to the dark bay colt by Bold Reasoning, but he was given to one of the female grooms. He did pretty much what you asked him. When you wanted him to stop, you just pulled him up, and when you wanted him to go, you gave him a swift kick in the belly. But even then, he was a colt you didn’t push around.

“He was a strong, strapping, wild-acting baby,” Polston recalled. “He was a big, playful colt, and when he began training he got so strong the girl couldn’t handle him. Billy came to me and said, ‘I got this big, strong colt and I need someone who can handle him,’ so he gave him to me. I liked him right from the start. I tried to impose my will on him, but he would have nothing to do with that. His thinking was, ‘We’re gonna do things my way. You don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you.’ We came to an understanding. We had to. He was one of the strongest horses I ever laid my hands on.

“Billy spotted what we had before anyone else. I’ll never forget one morning when we went out to work him. I was standing at the rail. He was supposed to work a half-mile and gallop out three-quarters. He comes rolling down the stretch, and Billy is on the pony heading back up the track waving his arms. I didn’t know what was going on. Afterward, Billy kept going, ‘Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!’ Slew had galloped out in 1:10 and change and Billy was trying to slow him down. That’s when we knew he was a special horse.”

Turner added, “It would take him about three strides to level off, and then, whoosh, he was gone. He would change leads so quickly, the rider wasn’t even aware of it.”

The clockers were impressed with Slew, but, because of miscommunication, his works were recorded under the name Seattle Sue. By the time Saratoga rolled around the word was out that Billy Turner had a black bullet who could fly.

One morning, Sally Hill came out with her son Jamie to watch Slew work from the gate in company. Allen Jerkens, who knew the Hills well, put Jamie up on his pony to give him a ringside seat as the horses broke from the gate, not knowing that the Hills owned one of the horses.

When the gates opened and Slew charged past the other horses in a flash, Jerkens looked with amazement and said, “Who the hell was that?” Sally laughed to herself and simply said, “You’ll find out.”

In fact, everyone found out. Two months later, Slew sewed up the 2-year-old championship with a breathtaking 9 3/4-length victory in the Champagne Stakes, run in a stakes-record 1:34 2/5. After the race, Mickey Taylor said, “If we can keep this horse in one piece, I’m never going to have to chop down another tree in my life.”

During the winter at Hialeah, the keyword was “relax.” Turner tried to keep Slew as calm and settled as possible, knowing he would have to harness a good deal of his speed in order to get him through the Triple Crown. It didn’t look promising after Slew won a seven-furlong allowance race by nine lengths in a track-record 1:20 3/5. “How in the world are we going to win the Belmont with this horse?” Turner asked.

“He was relaxed,” Polston said, “but he was never what you’d call docile. Even when he wasn’t in full training, he still was a handful to walk.”

Following decisive victories in the Flamingo Stakes and the Wood Memorial, Seattle Slew came to the Kentucky Derby undefeated in six starts. The media crush was taxing on Turner, the help, and the horse.

“It was a madhouse,” Polston said. “There was always a crowd of people around, and it was hard for the horses to relax, and hard for the people working with them to relax. I very seldom left the stable area. Mickey’s father had begun working as the night watchman in New York. He and Mickey’s mother lived in a camper right outside the stable area. They had this Doberman named Lance, and you didn’t mess with Lance. I fell in love with Mickey’s father. He was one of the most down-to-earth people I ever met. He and I always laughed about this one incident that happened while I was grazing Slew before the Derby. There were all these photographers around, and all of a sudden a car went by and Slew reared up and literally picked me up off the ground.”

Polston knew he was going to be in the limelight, so he went out and bought himself a three-piece powder blue suit for $100. He watched the Derby from the rail, and when he saw Slew break badly, it didn’t bother him at all. “Once he got to the lead, I said, ‘Well, that’s it.’ I knew they couldn’t beat him.”

When Slew, who was washed out, his neck lathered with sweat, broke near the back of the pack and found himself encircled by a stampede of horses, he reacted like a caged beast. Desperately in search of the open spaces he craved, he charged through the pack, knocking aside anyone who stood in his way. With his blood at the boiling point, he stared daggers at For the Moment for most of the running, while setting torrid fractions. He finally bounded to the lead, then in an instant, shut down the engines at the eighth pole, just as Turner had taught him. It was as if he knew his trainer had bigger plans for him and needed to save something for another day.

Turner was forced to watch the race on a TV monitor in the grandstand when he was unable to find his way to the boxes through the massive crowd. When Slew broke badly, Turner lost him and for a good portion of the race was following the wrong horse.

Instead of coming out of the race tired, Slew was a wild horse. He had run like an angry bronc, bullying his way through traffic, and he was still angry after the race.

“It was the only time I was scared of him,” Polston said. “He was so high-strung that night, he was evil, just evil. I couldn’t believe how wound tight he was. It was like he hadn’t even been in a race. I had to take him from the hotwalker and he ran over me a couple of times. I’d never seen him like that before. After the race, we had a couple of beers outside the barn, and Mickey had some champagne brought in. We bedded Slew down, and I bedded down right along with him.”

After winning the Preakness, again setting blistering fractions, Slew was brought back home to Belmont and finally seemed relaxed. Turner had handled him carefully all year, knowing the Belmont’s mile and a half would be his ultimate challenge. Although he never worked Slew farther than five furlongs, he had to take the edge off the colt, so he gave him two mile works in 1:37 2/5.

On June 11, Slew easily won the Belmont in front of 71,000 fans, becoming the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history. It had been a long, hard road, but he was now a living legend destined for immortality.

“After the race, I put Slew to bed,” Polston said, “then went home, took a bath and went to bed myself. I was drained.”

Following the Triple Crown, times were difficult, as friction between Turner and the Hills and Taylors grew, beginning with the decision to run Slew in the Swaps Stakes three weeks after the Belmont, which resulted in the colt’s first career defeat. Turner had the blacksmith pull Slew’s shoes off immediately after the Belmont and put plain steel shoes on with the intention of turning him out. When he was informed of the owners’ plans, he told them, “You don’t treat a good horse like that.”

Turner said he also took exception to using Slew in an advertising campaign for Xerox, which had just come out with a new high-quality X-ray machine for horses. Turner had to take Slew to Dr. William Reed’s clinic three times in five days, because that’s where the machine was. Each time, he had to tranquilize him. When they shipped to California, Slew had to be tranquilized for the fourth time. He was dull before and during the race and never ran a lick.

Slew was then sent up to Longacres in the Taylors’ neck of the woods to be paraded in front of the fans. The relationship between Turner and the owners continued to deteriorate, exacerbated by Turner’s drinking problem.

Polston liked Turner and liked the Taylors, and it was hard for him to watch their impending breakup unfold.

“I didn’t know all the details, but I really enjoyed working for Billy,” he said. “I knew Billy before I knew the Taylors and the Hills. You could walk up to him and ask him for 20 dollars, and whether he knew you or not, he’d give it to you. Billy is one of those happy-go-lucky guys, but he really didn’t like the publicity.”

Finally, that winter, Turner was fired, and Slew was turned over to Doug Peterson. “When Billy left, he just wished me good luck,” Polston said. “I could tell he was hurt. I still couldn’t believe a guy who had just won the Triple Crown would get fired. We all knew Billy liked to drink, but as far as I’m concerned he was always a good trainer.”

The Taylors and Hills were vilified for firing their trainer. “It was a very disturbing time,” Sally Hill said. “My kids could read the newspapers and it was hard for them to see their parents being slammed like that. Jim tried to get Billy to take care of his problem for a year. In the end, we did what we had to do.”

Turner said recently he has no animosity toward the Taylors and Hills for the breakup, and they have all put that behind them. “There’s no bitterness at all,” Turner said. “We all made mistakes, but we’ve grown and learned a lot. I appreciate everything they did for me and have no hard feelings whatsoever. I just feel very fortunate to have had a horse like Slew come along in my lifetime. And after practically drinking myself to death, I still was able to make a solid comeback and am grateful for everything. Here I am the only living trainer to have won the Triple Crown. I figure I’ve gotten a lot more than I deserve.”

As for Polston, he left the racetrack to be with his wife and two kids, driving a delivery truck and then working as a maintenance man in an apartment complex. But he never stopped thinking of Slew and all the horse did for him.

“Because of Slew I’m in the history books,” he said. “I rubbed the only undefeated Triple Crown winner. Nobody can say that. I have my picture in the racing Hall of Fame, and that’s something my grandkids can see.”

In 17 career starts, Slew won 14 races by an average margin of 4 3/4 lengths. His time of 1:54 2/5 in the Preakness was the second-fastest ever run. His time of 1:45 4/5 in the Marlboro Cup  was the second-fastest 1 1/8 miles ever run, and he did it carrying 128 pounds. By defeating Affirmed decisively on two occasions, he became the only Triple Crown winner ever to defeat a Triple Crown winner. In his career finale, the Stuyvesant Handicap at Aqueduct, he missed the track record by two-fifths of a second, winning in hand under 134 pounds.

Slew didn’t care if he killed off his opponents early or late. If they tried to take him on early, he’d run them into the ground, no matter how fast he had to go. In the Marlboro Cup, when Steve Cauthen, aboard Affirmed, decided to sit back and wait before going after him, Slew made him pay the price. After being allowed to waltz the opening half in :47, Slew blazed home his last five furlongs in an astounding :58 4/5, turning the first ever battle of Triple Crown winners into nothing more than a procession.

In what many believe to be the greatest losing effort of all time, he somehow managed to battle back the entire length of the stretch against the top-class Exceller in the mile and a half Jockey Club Gold Cup. Seemingly exhausted after breaking through the gate before the race, having his rider lose an iron, and then fighting off Affirmed and his pacesetter in suicidal fractions, Slew was passed at the quarter pole by Exceller, who had made up some 20 lengths and appeared to be on his way to an easy victory. Slew, however, dug in on the sloppy track and kept fighting back, only to fall a nose short. Many feel it was this race more than his victories that stamped his greatness. After all these years, people still talk about the courage he displayed on that wet, autumn afternoon.

Not even the controversies that surrounded the horse could diminish his stature in the eyes of the public. After Turner was fired, replaced by Doug Peterson, his regular rider, Jean Cruguet, also was let go, and the mount was given to Angel Cordero Jr. Then Polston, resigned. Finally, the owners’ partnership was dissolved following a heated court battle.

“People do get divorced,” Sally Hill said. “It certainly wasn’t what any of us wanted. Even with all the controversies, I still thank God for all the wonderful memories. No one can ever take that away from us. All I can think of is what an incredible story it was and how lucky we are to have been a part of it.”

Most people have no idea how close to death Seattle Slew came between his 3-year-old year and 4-year-old year when he was became ill with a severe viral infection.

“I’ve seen other horses with the same thing,” Mickey Taylor said, “and they died within 24 hours. But he had the heart and the fight.”

Slew would need every ounce of heart and fight to battle other maladies that plagued him later in life. While at Three Chimneys Farm, he suffered from a severe back problem that required two surgeries and also suffered from arthritis. He eventually was moved to the quieter environment of Hill ‘N’ Dale Farm. Even as his condition began to deteriorate he never stopped fighting. But his youthful spirit finally lost out to the reality of old age.

And so, as Seattle Slew lay in his stall on the anniversary of his Kentucky Derby victory, it was Derby Day 1977 once again. The crowd was cheering. He was bulling his way through horses and running free. The finish line was getting closer. There was no turning back. It was the perfect time to say farewell. It was a good day to die.

 

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