Triple Crown king, equally noble sire

Horse racing: The sport's last living winner of the 3-year-old trifecta dies in his sleep near Lexington, Ky. His breeding record is legendary, too.

Seattle Slew: 1974-2002

May 08, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Seattle Slew, the last living winner of the Triple Crown, died yesterday in his sleep at Hill 'n' Dale Farm near Lexington, Ky. The gallant Slew was 28.

His death leaves racing without a living Triple Crown winner for the first time since 1919, when Sir Barton became the first horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Only 11 horses have accomplished the feat, considered the sport's holy grail.

Seattle Slew was the 10th, capturing the series in 1977, and the only one to do it undefeated. Slew, as he was known, entered the Kentucky Derby after having won all six of his races. He emerged from the Belmont a perfect 9-for-9.

In 1978, the year after Seattle Slew's triumph, Affirmed won the Triple Crown. No horse has done it since, although War Emblem, winner of the Kentucky Derby four days ago, will attempt to claim the second jewel, the Preakness, May 18 at Pimlico.

Affirmed's death last year left Seattle Slew as the only horse alive with "Triple Crown winner" stamped to his name. Now, there is none.

"Isn't that astounding?" said Dan Rosenberg, president of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., where Slew stood at stud from September 1985 to April 1 this year. "I'm at a loss to explain why that is so profound. But it is very profound.

"His death affects so many people on a personal level, and not just those of us fortunate enough to have worked with him. ... Seattle Slew was not just a good racehorse. He was one of the greatest racehorses who ever lived."

Slew's death came on the 25th anniversary of his victory in the Kentucky Derby. According to a statement by Hill 'n' Dale Farm, the regal thoroughbred, whose health had deteriorated rapidly in recent days, died at 9 a.m. in his stall in the company of his owners, Karen and Mickey Taylor, and two grooms, Carlos Arreola and Tom Wade. Wade had attended Slew for two decades at three farms.

"He died peacefully; he had just had enough," John Sikura, owner of Hill 'n' Dale, where Slew moved last month, told a reporter for Thoroughbred "He tried as hard as he could, but he wasn't able to overcome. It was about as noble and sad an experience as you could imagine."

Seattle Slew underwent surgery in 2000 and again in March to relieve spinal-cord compression causing pain in his neck. Slew bred his last mare Feb. 23.

The near-black horse with the captivating brown eyes was not only a legendary racehorse, but also a magnificent sire. At the time of his death, Seattle Slew had sired 102 stakes winners. His progeny had earned more than $75 million.

He sired seven Eclipse Award winners: A P Indy, Capote, Digression, Landaluce, Slew o' Gold, Surfside and Swale. He also proved to be an outstanding sire of broodmares. One example was Palace Music, who gave birth to Cigar. Cigar was born at Country Life Farm near Bel Air and won 16 straight races, trying the modern-day record.

"There are a handful of horses each century who not only are exceptional racehorses but are also able to transmit that to their offspring, and then have that offspring pass it on to their offspring," said Rosenberg, of Three Chimneys. "This is a very, very rare kind of horse whose influence will be felt by this breed forever."

The story of Seattle Slew was a fairy tale with a dark side. He was a modest, $17,500 purchase as a yearling by two fun-loving couples in their 30s dubbed the "Slew Crew." Karen Taylor was a former flight attendant, and her husband, Mickey, a lumberman from Washington. They bought the young, gangly horse, nicknamed "Baby Huey" after the clumsy comic-strip character, with Sally and Dr. Jim Hill, a veterinarian, who lived in New York.

Under the attentive eye and patient hand of trainer Billy Turner, Seattle Slew developed into a superstar. He won 14 of 17 races, set track records and earned $1.2 million. He won an Eclipse Award each year he ran - at 2, 3 and 4. In 1977, the year he won the Triple Crown, he was also voted Horse of the Year.

The next year at age 4, Seattle Slew met the 3-year-old Affirmed, who had just won his Triple Crown, in the Marlboro Cup Handicap at Belmont Park. It was the first battle between Triple Crown winners. Affirmed was heavily favored at 1-2, but Slew prevailed by three lengths.

He and Affirmed clashed again a month later in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. After outrunning Affirmed in a sizzling speed duel, Seattle Slew engaged the charging Exceller down the stretch of the 1 1/2 -mile race. As Affirmed faded, Seattle Slew battled Exceller far longer and harder than observers could have imagined. He finally lost by a nose but gained even greater respect in defeat for such a determined effort.

The fairy tale, however, turned nightmarish off the track. After the Triple Crown, Turner was fired and so was Slew's jockey, Jean Cruguet. Turner acknowledged he had a drinking problem and eventually sought help at Alcoholics Anonymous. The relationship between the Taylors and Hills soured and erupted into a series of lawsuits.

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