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.
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).