Add Seasoning - by Dan Liebman

 Seattle Slew was a heck of a racehorse. He started only three times at 2 and had just six races prior to winning the 1977 Kentucky Derby (gr. I). He went on to win the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont (gr. I) Stakes and remains, 31 years later, the only unbeaten horse to win the Triple Crown.

Big Brown tried…and failed.

We can look back and question the competition Seattle Slew ran against in his Triple Crown races, just as many are questioning the current crop of 3-year-olds. But we cannot question whether Seattle Slew was a good horse.

Triple Crown winners had never occurred in back-to-back years until Seattle Slew and Affirmed (1978), so it was an historic moment when the two met in the Marlboro Cup Handicap (gr. I) Sept. 16, 1978. Partly because of who Affirmed had beaten in his races, and mainly because he had won 10 straight, for the only time in Seattle Slew’s 17-race career, Slew was not the choice of the bettors. Affirmed was made the 1-2 favorite while Seattle Slew went off at more than 2-1. But in wire-to-wire fashion, as was his style, Seattle Slew controlled the pace and ran away from Affirmed to win by three lengths. And it was not a soft pace. Seattle Slew ran the nine furlongs in 1:45 4⁄5, just two-fifths off the American record for the distance, set by another Triple Crown winner in the first Marlboro Cup five years earlier, Secretariat.

Seasoning, or training, is an important part of preparation for any athlete, regardless of talent level. Though he had only been out six times prior to the Derby, Seattle Slew had run 46 furlongs, compared to three races totaling 25.5 furlongs for Big Brown. Every furlong previously run makes a big difference before having to traverse 31.5 furlongs in the course of the five-week Triple Crown period.

Seattle Slew is the exception among the 11 winners of the Triple Crown. His three races at 2 are the lowest number among the esteemed group, the next lowest being six; they averaged nine starts as juveniles. Triple Crown winners Sir Barton and War Admiral each made six starts as 2-year-olds; Gallant Fox made seven; Omaha, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, and Affirmed each made nine; Count Fleet made 15; and Whirlaway made 16.

By the time they ran in the Derby, the 11 Triple Crown winners averaged a dozen starts.

In comparison, the seven horses in recent years that have won the Derby and Preakness only to fall short in the Belmont—Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, Real Quiet, War Emblem, Silver Charm, Charismatic, and Big Brown—have averaged four starts at 2 and fewer than eight prior to the Derby.

Consider that of this year’s 20-horse Derby field, the average number of starts at 2 was 3.4 and the average number of starts prior to the first Saturday in May was 6.3. Compared to the 11 Triple Crown winners, those figures are 62% and 47.5% less, respectively.

Charismatic and Smarty Jones never raced after the Belmont, but Funny Cide, Real Quiet, War Emblem, and Silver Charm all came back to win a grade or group I race.

Big Brown needs to prove that he can do the same.

Star Parade

Those who bemoan the quick retirement of many of racing’s stars were smiling widely June 14, when three champions all won. The parade of stars was led by 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin, who took the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) in his first start since a triumphant overseas trip to win the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). Also at Churchill Downs that afternoon, Dreaming of Anna, the 2006 champion juvenile filly, was victorious in the Early Times Mint Julep Handicap (gr. IIIT), while at Belmont Park, Ginger Punch, last year’s champion older female, took the Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I).


Leave a Comment:


I agree, it was great to see Curlin, Ginger and Anna win on Saturday.  There's something just too fun about knowing what these horses have done and see them do it agin.  I also hope these two fillies see Curlin again at the stud barn.  Can you imagine how beautiful a Curlinger or Curlana would look and run?

17 Jun 2008 12:23 PM

This is what I have said since Brown's loss ... he didn't have enough seasoning.  To quote the great trainer and television personality from back in Slew's day - Frank Wright - he had "no bottom".  Big Brown needed a good blow-out to take the edge off of him before the Belmont.  

Big Brown was deceivingly calm going into the gate, but did he ever explode when those gates opened! He appeared to be damn near unmanageable!  Tossing his head all over the place, running up on horses then getting stopped not once, but twice!  When I saw that, I knew there was no way he was a great enough horse to overcome all that and still win.  

It was a shame ... truly, because I still think he can become a monster, especially as a four year old ... if, and only if, they allow him to race, which is not too likely!  

All right ... give him some time off, then bring him back in the fall.  Give Brown the chance to show how "big" he can really be!

Yes ... I still like that big brown horse!

17 Jun 2008 2:36 PM

I recall spring 1977 and Howard Cosell on the radio knocking Slew's competition.  Howard and others missed Slew's championship tests at the start of the Kentucky Derby and during his head to head in the first mile of the Preakness, with the very good Cormorant.  He also defeated a very good runner in the Preakness, J.O. Tobin, who later would defeat a weary Slew in California.  Big Brown has no met-or overcome-such tests to date.

17 Jun 2008 2:42 PM

My Breyer Seattle Slew model sits on top of my media center & my framed Seattle Slew portrait hangs above my desk. He is watching me type. There will never be anyone greater.  

17 Jun 2008 9:14 PM

I agree Dan, great article as always. And I can't wait to see Brownie again. And last Saturday's races were great. And of course I won THAT trifecta, since it paid so little.... I'm looking forward to this Saturday as well.Colonial Downs has J'Ray, Rutherienne, Court Vision, Adriano, Kentucky Bear and one of my old favorites, Scrappy T.

18 Jun 2008 12:56 AM

Only one dispute - did you forget

the reason Charismatic lost the Belmont was not because he wasn't

fast enough,it was because in the stretch he started to move up

from 3rd & falterd,that was when he injured his leg & kept on running [with great courage]

to keep his 3rd place !!

18 Jun 2008 3:36 AM

Doug Peterson did a great job of preparing Seattle Slew for his four year old races. He started the year with a horse almost dead with a jugular vein collapse and ended up Top Older Male. That year was Slew's true proving year.

18 Jun 2008 10:08 AM

I'm with you Mary, there will never be another Seattle Slew.  

18 Jun 2008 9:39 PM

Slew will always be my all time favorite. He's my first TC winner and champion.

Turner, Slew's first trainer said in a recent story that Brown didn't have the "blow-outs" to take the edge off.

Just goes to show you need great trainers to guide their talented horses.

19 Jun 2008 3:03 AM

Seattle Slew was unbelievable.  I remember the way he bullied his way to the front in the Derby. With very little room, he was seemingly shut off on the rail shortly after the start. Most horses would have hesitated to extend themselves in quarters that tight, but it didn't seem to faze Slew.  Then, in the Preakness he buried a very good speed horse [Cormorant] when he was parked outside of that horse in a time when Pimlico really did have a huge rail bias.  Amazing!  In the Marlboro Cup, he was coming off a loss to Dr. Patches at the Meadowlands in which the early fractions were very fast.  That race set him up for the race against Affirmed.  Cordero rode Slew that day and very few riders could ever deny Angel the lead if he wanted it and had the horse to get it.  Boy, did he ever the horse that day.  Affirmed ran a very game race, but was no match for Slew.  I've not seen a horse like him since.  

19 Jun 2008 5:19 PM

I recently watched Slew's Marlboro and was just awe struck by his style of racing and the fractions he set,not to mention who he battled.If you look up the word "freak" in the dictionary you will see a portrait of Seattle Slew.

20 Jun 2008 12:49 PM

Don't forget his second in the Gold Cup.  That to me was one of his most amazing races.  A true champion and great sire.  

21 Jun 2008 9:03 AM

Deb, I can't disagree with you there. One of the top 5 races of all time.

21 Jun 2008 10:16 AM

Wish I'd gotten to see Slew race in person. (I never thought I'd want to have lived in the 70s, what with all the disco and weird clothes, but what a decade for racing that must have been!) Back when Cigar was on his streak, I remember some commentators were down on his pedigree, and I kept saying, "He's got Seattle Slew in there! What more do you want!?"

PS: Dee - Glad someone remembers Charismatic! I loved him and also think he would have gotten the Triple if not for the leg.

21 Jun 2008 1:15 PM

Seattle Slew was a great horse.  Big Brown is not.  This is a no brainer.

21 Jun 2008 2:47 PM

Never any horse greater than slew?

Me thinks you jest.

21 Jun 2008 11:48 PM

Great Article, not only do good horse need to run for a longer period of time but we need to run them in longer distances. We need to go back to the Jockey Club Gold Cup being 1 1/2 mile and bring back the Marlboro.These great races showed us longevity,stamina and durability. Plus,imagine if Curlin were to come back next year and win 4 or 5 more grade 1's. What it would do to his stud fee?? it is a win win situation.

22 Jun 2008 9:31 AM

Some have questioned Slew's competition in his Triple Crown races, but not me.  He ran against several good ones, including the classy Cormorant, J.O. Tobin...the two-year old champion in France..., the very speedy For The Moment, a full brother to Foolish Pleasure.  And there were others.  Slew had to run early and run late.  He made it look easy and his competition weak because he was so vastly superior.  (Aside from Alydar, who really was competition for Affirmed?  And except for Sham, who did Secretariat face?  One could question their competition just as easy as they could Slew's.)  After Slew's disastrous break in the Derby and spotting the field several lengths, he had to expend a great amount of energy barreling through the field down on the inside to gain a place while running very fast fractions for the first seven furlongs or so.  Any other horse would have been cooked by that scenario and never would have won.  I, too, love watching his Marlboro Cup.  He absolutely looked as if he was flying; like his feet weren't touching the ground.  There's nothing more exciting than seeing  a horse with blazing raw speed who loves to flaunt it.  And in my mind, he recaptures the lead in The Gold Cup at the wire instead of one jump past.  His brilliance in running suicidal early fractions on an off track against Affirmed and Affirmed's rabbit, Life's Hope, while Hope's jockey, Craig Perrett screamed at him to stir him up, and then absolutely refusing to yield to Exceller down the stretch when he had to have been very exhausted was truly amazing.  That may well have been his finest race.  Some may say Affirmed had an excuse when his saddle slipped, but Slew did too.  Slew broke through the gate before the start and had to be reloaded...never a good thing....then Cordero momentarily lost one of the irons going around the first turn.  Just seeing Slew war dance his way to the post and sizing up and psyching out the competition was one great thing to witness.  He never stopped prancing.  He truly is one unforgettable horse.  Yes, you could say I'm an ardent fan.  Just a tad.

22 Jun 2008 9:54 AM

I was at Three Chimneys farm about 10 years ago to see Seattle Slew. He was outside his barn and the farm manager let me take some pictures of Slew. As I was getting ready for my shot, Slew was giving me a look like - come on fella, take your shot, I am not gonna wait all day! - Got a great shot of his steely eyes staring me down like an opponent on the track. What an imposing figure! Slew would have smoked Brownie anytime.

22 Jun 2008 11:42 AM

Yeah, I'd have to say Secretariat ranks ahead of the great Seattle Slew on my list of modern immortals.  I'd say Curlin might be knocking on the door later this year if he succeeds on the turf.  Big Brown suffered from a trash talking human and a rough trip he wasn't ready to handle but even so, he's another good horse who will be retired after the Breeder's Cup, so his connections say, and we'll never know if he could have kept on getting better like Curlin has.  

22 Jun 2008 12:05 PM

Gee, What about KELSO he was the greatest 5 Gold Cups at 2 miles And the weight he had to carry,these other horses are a joke

23 Jun 2008 8:46 AM

Seattle Slew, great raceorse,great sire and great sire of sires. What more is there to say?

23 Jun 2008 10:16 AM

I've been watching the races for over 40 years. The first horse I watched who gave me goose bumps was Secretariat, the second one was Big Brown. Yes, he absolutely needed more experience going in to these races and yes, his trainer and owner are 'colorful'. But the horse can run and he makes it seem so effortless. The great horses are great because they were raced - there was a record and they were around long enough to be known. It is a shame that Curlin's career is the exception now instead of the rule. How many of the others that were retired at the end of their 3 yr. old yr. would be thought of as great if they had continued instead of being put out to stud? Who knows.

23 Jun 2008 12:44 PM

Seattle Slew was the greatest of all a race horse AND a sire. Is sad his best race could only award him a second place in the Cup, but for all of us thrilled with each of his performances he was the winner. Long live Slew.

23 Jun 2008 2:44 PM

The thing about Slew, which most people don't understand, was that he ran most of his races in the paddock.  Slew would wash out so badly in the paddock it was alarming, and he was a very hyper horse as well.  I think he got a little better when he was 4.  Does anybody remember what he looked like in the paddock before the 1977 Kentucky Derby.  He was a total washout.  I wouldn't have placed a bet on him by looks alone.  It wasn't a good thing to see,  but Slew was in a class by himself.  Just think how much better he could have been, if that's possible, if he was a more relaxed horse.  Secretariat ran against some really good horses, Sham, Our Native (Grade I winner, I think) was a really good horse,  Forego. There are more but I don't have his race charts with me at the moment.  After the way he ran in the Preakness would you have gone up against him? Seriously? His Preakness run, IMO, was unbelievable. That's why only five faced him in the Belmont. Put a picture of Secretariat, in his prime, up against any other horse you can think of,  and tell me you do not think this horse looks different from the rest.  He was truly one of a kind.  Hope everyone had the chance to see him before he died.  There will be no other.

23 Jun 2008 6:20 PM

Dee- thanks for proving me that I'm not the only one that is a fan of Charismatic. I watched that race that year and really thought he had it until he broke his leg.  And I still think he would have- his body just didn't allow him too.  Can't wait until he comes back to the States one day :)

24 Jun 2008 9:05 AM

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