In '77, 'Slew' of hype proved to be true

May 13, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

When Arazi generated breathless hyperbole in the weeks leading up to this year's Kentucky Derby, Billy Turner was reminded of a similar buildup and a simpler time.

The year was 1977, the horse was Seattle Slew and the expectations were no less enormous.

"He was an undefeated 2-year-old," said Turner, Seattle Slew's trainer. "Being the 2-year-old champ, he had run the fastest mile a 2-year-old had ever run. The heat was intense."

Then, as this year with Arazi, there were attempts at comparison with the incomparable Secretariat.

Unlike Arazi, who failed miserably in the Derby before retreating to France, Seattle Slew stood up to thoroughbred racing's test of time.

Seattle Slew won the Derby, streaked through the Preakness and romped in the Belmont to become the 10th Triple Crown champion. He was the first to do it undefeated.

A son of Bold Reasoning, Seattle Slew won at Pimlico Race Course in 1 minute, 54 2/5 seconds, which was 3/5 faster than Secretariat had gone. His fractional times were better than Secretariat's every step of the way. And his first mile of 1:34 4/5 was the fastest first mile in Preakness history.

Where would Turner rank Seattle Slew on the all-time list?

"In my career, from Kelso through the 1980s, he would rank right there with the very best," Turner said. "It's hard to separate them. One horse everybody wanted to compare him with was Secretariat.

"Secretariat had probably the most perfect stride of any horse I was familiar with up to that point. The farther he went, the more energy he had left, so easy was each stride. If Secretariat had raced longer, he would have been the greatest stallion the world had ever seen."

But how would Seattle Slew have measured up against Secretariat?

"If you put the two of them in a race and went a mile, Seattle Slew [would have] had Secretariat. In a mile and a quarter . . . that would have been interesting," Turner said.

That kind of speculation became a point of contention leading up to the Preakness in 1977. Howard Cosell, for one, compared Seattle Slew favorably with Secretariat. However, Cosell's television sidekick, retired jockey Eddie Arcaro, suggested that Slew had beaten "an ordinary field" at Churchill Downs. Arcaro then spent the ensuing days explaining that he hadn't meant to slight Slew.

"When a good horse comes along and stands out, it can make others look bad," Turner said.

But, by the time Seattle Slew moved into Barn E, Stall 40, at Pimlico -- the stall reserved for the Derby winner -- Turner said he knew his horse would have to run a different, and better, race in Baltimore.

The reason was a Maryland-bred horse named Cormorant, ridden by Marylander Danny Wright. Cormorant, who had missed the Derby with a virus, was a speed horse and drew the No. 1

post.

With Jean Cruguet aboard, Seattle Slew had a head lead at the half-mile. But Cormorant made a charge and held the lead in the backstretch.

"Cormorant had a lead on Seattle Slew longer than any horse who ran against him," Turner said. "[But] I was happy to settle just off Cormorant. There was always a question of whether I could get Seattle Slew to settle."

Seattle Slew instead ran the race Turner wanted. Cruguet opened up a three-length lead into the stretch, then held on as J.O. Tobin and Run Dusty Run fired and fell back.

Iron Constitution, a 30-1, last-minute entry, pulled within two lengths of Seattle Slew at the wire, but was not a threat. Run Dusty Run finished third, Cormorant fourth and J.O. Tobin fifth.

Seattle Slew completed his Triple Crown sweep with a four-length victory over Run Dusty Run at the Belmont that June.

There was a sad epilogue to Seattle Slew's triumphant 3-year-old season, though. There was a disagreement about whether to send Seattle Slew to the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. Slew's owners, Mickey Taylor and Jim Hill, wanted the horse to run at the California track three weeks after the Belmont. Turner did not.

In the end, Turner's vision proved accurate. Slew lost in the Swaps by 16 lengths to J.O. Tobin. Turner was ousted in December that year.

"I had read the history books; I knew what the Triple Crown does to horses," Turner said. "I watched the trail of tears of horses who made the move right after the Triple Crown. I said the gamble was not worth it."

Today, Seattle Slew, 18 years old, stands at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., where he has had an illustrious career at stud.

Turner, who developed some 20 stakes winners, also including Dust Commander and Czaravich, trains "half a dozen" 2-year-olds at Laurel these days. As a recovering alcoholic who spent six weeks at a rehabilitation center in Havre de Grace last year, he is attempting to revive his career where it started in 1967.

"I'm doing great," he said from his Laurel barn. "It's been almost a year [since he's had a drink]."

Seattle Slew is never far from his thoughts.

"That's what you spend your life looking for," Turner said. "When he comes up, you just hope you're able to control it."

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