The way it traditionally works, the highlights of the second week of the Saratoga meeting are the yearling sale and the $100,000 Alabama Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. But by last Thursday, when the lineups for Saturday's racing card began making the rounds, it was clear that this was to be no ordinary second week at the leafy old track in upstate New York. There on the mimeographed sheets was an entry for Seattle Slew. He was scheduled to run seven-eighths of a mile, for a winner's purse of $15,000, against "3-year-olds and upward that have not won three races of $7,800 since Dec. 31."
Seattle Slew, now there's a grand old name. It was just a year ago that he became the only horse ever to go through a Triple Crown season undefeated. He became a star, and as a television attraction he even outdrew Secretariat. In those days, Slew's earning potential seemed boundless—but at the very height of his career, he just went poof. And as hard as it might be to comprehend, by last Saturday Seattle Slew had run but twice in the 425 days since he won the Belmont.
Slew won easily at Saratoga, and by six lengths, as indeed he should have against four opponents with a combined record this year of one victory in 29 outings. Racetrackers have a name for such horses: crows. But if the victory was routine, there was nothing dull about what Slew's performance might portend. With favored Caesar's Wish suffering a fatal heart attack during the running of the Alabama Stakes (the winner was White Star Line), discussion of Slew's future provided a welcome diversion beneath the elms.
The most fascinating possibility was that the fall would see a dream race between two Triple Crown winners. Because they come along so rarely, an opportunity like this one has never existed before. In fact, never before had two Triple Crown winners appeared on the same track in the same week. But last week Triple Crown winner Affirmed and Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew both ran at Saratoga. On Tuesday, Affirmed won the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Jim Dandy, a prep race for this week's Travers, in which the Harbor View Farm's super-colt will again battle his supershadow, Alydar. And although Affirmed won, the Jim Dandy was some kind of race; in fact, few races in Saratoga's storied past have been so hotly contested or had such a dramatic windup.
Unbeaten in seven starts this year, Affirmed, with Steve Cauthen in the saddie, was facing only so-so opposition, save for Sensitive Prince, who had finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby. The Prince is trained by Allen Jerkens, who has been called the Genius because of his facility for fashioning upsets. When Jerkens sets out to beat "unbeatable" horses, he gets what he goes after with astonishing frequency—and he went after Affirmed the way he had chased so many others.
Before the Jim Dandy, Jerkens put two brilliant workouts into Sensitive Prince. Then he reached back into history and garnished his horse with Jacinto Vasquez, the same rider Jerkens had hoisted into the saddle of Onion, when that nonentity beat Secretariat five years before. When Vasquez pushed Sensitive Prince to a commanding early lead and then held it through the stretch, everybody in the crowd knew that Jerkens was going to upset another champion.
But Affirmed, who had been having trouble handling the track during the early running, finally got hold of it and came storming after Sensitive Prince. The latter's eight-length lead had shrunk to four lengths at the furlong pole. Still, it was obvious that Affirmed's thrilling charge was going to be too late—only somehow Cauthen got Affirmed home half a length in front.
The tightness of the finish was shocking to others besides those in the crowd of 21,554 that had been lured by Affirmed and had bet him down to 1 to 20. Although Affirmed's race was indeed only a prep, his trainer, Laz Barrera, had not intended to lose or even come close to losing. "Affirmed wasn't fully cranked up." he said later, "but I guess he showed what he is made of. Jerkens really must be the Genius. He worked and worked to try and beat Affirmed—only Affirmed wouldn't let him. Maybe there's some horse that can beat Affirmed this year, but I don't think so."
Well, there are at least three people who disagree, and they hope to make their point on Sept. 16 in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont, an event that is currently on Affirmed's campaign schedule. Owners Mickey Taylor and Jim Hill and trainer Doug Peterson, the men who direct both the fortunes and misfortunes of Slew, were all well pleased with their horse's seven-furlong race.
"The frustrations we have had this year are unbelievable," Taylor said. "First Slew came down with a blood disease in Florida and almost died on us. Just when he was working perfectly. That killed winter racing for him. Then we were going after the Metropolitan mile at Belmont on May 29. To get ready for the Met, we ran him in a race at Aqueduct and he won easily. But then he hurt himself in his stall and had to be taken out of training again.
"Even after winning here, Slew needs another race before he runs in the Marlboro. We hope to get a mile or a mile-and-an-eighth race at Belmont before that, but if we can't find such a race there early in September, a couple of other options are open to us."
At Saratoga, the return of Seattle Slew drew a strange reaction. In the walking ring he danced around and hammed it up as he always does, but the applause was scanty. Slew has been a puzzlement since his owners sent him to Hollywood Park after last year's Triple Crown, only to see him struggle home fourth in the Swaps, walloped by 16 lengths by J. O. Tobin. The owners had gone against trainer Billy Turner's advice (Turner felt that the horse badly needed a rest), and in December the Slew crew and Turner parted. Turner was obviously fired for being too outspoken.
"I love Seattle Slew," he said recently. "I always will. A trainer gets his hands on a horse like him only once in his life. Yes, I'm outspoken. I say what I want to say and let it go at that. When I train a horse, I don't want owners around the barn from morning until night. If you were to say that the owners and I are on good terms, you'd be dead wrong. One morning this spring Slew was standing outside his barn at Belmont and I walked over and patted him and said, 'Hey, Slew, how you doin'?' then walked away. I didn't see it, of course, but someone who did said the entire Slew crew just froze."
Reflecting on Seattle Slew's career after Saturday's race, Taylor said, "Yes, I know we've been criticized and second-guessed. The racetrack is a tough place. Sure, we've done some things wrong. But now we're going to prove that we know what we're doing."
Taylor and Hill also feel they can salvage their season of controversy and near-disaster if Slew can run in, and win. the Marlboro. "We're not afraid of Affirmed," Taylor said. "We've watched every one of his races this year and watched them carefully. He's an outstanding horse, but so is Slew. Affirmed had better be ready when the Marlboro Cup comes up, because he's going to see one big, black butt in front of him."
After he won on Seattle Slew last Saturday, jockey Jean Cruguet was easing Slew up on the backstretch when the place horse. Proud Birdie, the long-shot winner of last year's Marlboro, came alongside in a canter. Suddenly Slew started to take off, as if ready to run another race. "If the outrider hadn't grabbed hold of Slew," Cruguet said, "he would've gone around the racetrack again and still been running good."
The 1977 Triple Crown winner returned to the circle in front of the stands to polite applause. Obviously the fans didn't know what to make of his race or how to compare it with Affirmed's. Slew's running time for the seven furlongs, over a sloppy track, was a creditable 1:21[3/5]; Affirmed was timed in a stake-record 1:47[4/5] for his mile and an eighth over a good track. But the important thing is not to make any firm comparison just yet, but rather to speculate about the unparalleled confrontation in September.
Feeling no pain—at last—Seattle Slew was an easy winner in his latest return to the races.
Five days earlier, Affirmed had a tougher time.