Dark side to 'Slew' saga Horse racing: Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown 20 years ago, but then the trainer was fired and the owners feuded, tarnishing the story of the colt's Cinderella rise.

May 11, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

By the time Seattle Slew arrived at Pimlico for the 102nd Preakness on May 21, 1977, the fairy tale was one-third told.

A modest $17,500 purchase as a yearling, Seattle Slew had starred in the rags-to-riches story of winning the Kentucky Derby. His owners -- two fun-loving couples in their 30s dubbed the "Slew Crew" -- were the darlings of American racing.

The nation's sports fans watched eagerly as Seattle Slew -- this dark-brown blaze of speed so awkward as a baby that his handlers called him "Baby Huey" after the clumsy comic-strip character -- tried to do what no horse had ever done: win the Triple Crown without having lost a race.

"One of the wonderful aspects of thoroughbred racing is the Cinderella story," said Dan Rosenberg, general manager of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., where Seattle Slew, 23, stands as one of North America's top stallions. "And Seattle Slew epitomizes the Cinderella story -- the ugly duckling who turns into a swan, if you'll allow me to mix my metaphors."

But as with most fairy tales, the story has dark chapters.

Seattle Slew's popular trainer, Billy Turner, was fired five months after winning the Triple Crown. He drank so much vodka starting first thing every morning, the horse's owners say, that he forgot which horses he had trained the day before.

Then the owners fired the jockey, Jean Cruguet. And finally, the owners, despite a deep friendship during the greatest moments of their lives, declared war and assaulted one another with a barrage of lawsuits. Today, they don't even speak.

"That horse, he just made so much money," said Turner, who trained in Maryland in much of the 1990s. "It became such a big thing that it consumed everybody involved."

And it began so innocently.

Horse owners since the early 1970s, Karen Taylor was a former flight attendant, and her husband, Mickey Taylor, a lumberman. They lived in eastern Washington state.

Their dear friend, Dr. Jim Hill, a veterinarian, recommended that they buy Seattle Slew, a son of Bold Reasoning out of the mare My Charmer, at a 1975 yearling auction in Lexington, Ky. Hill and his wife, Sally, had met the Taylors through the horse business. In partnership, they bought 13 prospects, including the one Hill especially liked, Seattle Slew. He cost $17,500.

Two years later, as Seattle Slew emerged as one of the great thoroughbreds of all time, Karen Taylor grew fond of saying: "I live in a mobile home, and I drive a pickup truck. But I've got a hell of a horse."

They sent the colt to Turner, another friend and former steeplechase rider who had trained horses seasonally in Maryland since the early 1960s. Based at Belmont Park in the mid-1970s, Turner accepted Seattle Slew and another Taylor-Hill purchase and sent them to Andor Farm in Monkton, where his wife at the time, Paula, taught yearlings to be ridden.

"He had the size. He had the bone. He was what you'd call a floppy colt," Turner said. "That's one of the reasons he didn't bring more money at the sales, because he just wasn't an eye-catcher."

But he learned quickly on the farm and adapted well at the racetrack. Turner began training him with an easygoing, older filly.

"One morning he went off with the filly for about a sixteenth of a mile," Turner said, "and all of a sudden he realized he was in a competitive situation, and he was gone -- in spite of the rider and everything.

"That's all I had to see. The stride was there. The determination was something I had never seen before."

Seattle Slew raced only three times as a 2-year-old, winning all three, including the one-mile Champagne Stakes at Belmont. He ran that race in 1 minute, 34 2/5 seconds, the fastest mile ever for a 2-year-old.

"After he won the Champagne, I knew it in my bones that this horse could win the Triple Crown," Turner says. "The only thing that would stop him was if he didn't show up."

Turner's bones didn't lie.

Later, summarizing Seattle Slew's 3-year-old season, Joe Hirsch the Daily Racing Form wrote: "Every time he ran he was an odds-on favorite, and the response to his presence on the racetrack, either for a morning workout or a major race, was electric. 'Slewmania' was a virulent and widespread condition."

Turner scheduled just three races leading up to the Kentucky Derby. In the first, an allowance race at Hialeah Park, Seattle Slew set a seven-furlong track record of 1: 20 3/5. He won the Flamingo Stakes by four lengths and the Wood Memorial Stakes by 3 1/4 .

Then the criticism of Turner's training methods began. Instead of preparing Seattle Slew for the Kentucky Derby and hoping for the best in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Turner approached the three races as a package.

He was a strong-minded 37-year-old not afraid to defy tradition. The traditionalists said he was babying his colt, walking him up to the greatest challenge of his life.

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