Even though it was only a bit past nine that morning last January at Hialeah, it was hot and muggy. Dr. Jim Hill, one of the owners of Seattle Slew, walked down the shedrow of Barn N and looked in on his ailing colt. For two days Hill had barely slept a wink as Slew lingered near death, fighting the effects of a blood infection. Then came the change Hill had awaited. "I've just seen the results of some blood tests and I know that Slew isn't going to die," he told a visitor. "I can't say now if he'll ever run again. It's going to take a long time for him to even get back on the racetrack. The last few days have been hell for everybody, but I hope the worst is finally over."
It was, and the best was yet to come. The history of sports is filled with extraordinary comebacks, but few in recent years have equaled that of Seattle Slew, who last Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park trounced Affirmed in the first meeting of two Triple Crown winners, the $300,000 Marlboro Cup. No longer will the critics ask, "Who did he ever beat?" or dare suggest again that Slew was just "the best of a mediocre crop."
When Seattle Slew rolled home three lengths in front of Affirmed, the crowd of 40,880 at Belmont seemed stunned. Slew had jumped off to an early lead and widened it going down the backstretch in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile race. During the early running he appeared to be just a horse out on the lead with a very long way to go. Slew ran the first quarter of a mile in 24 seconds, with Affirmed second, two lengths back, then went the half in :47. Slow time. Very slow. Slew hit the three-quarters in 1:10[1/5] with Affirmed still 2½ lengths behind. As Slew swung into the stretch, he went very wide, opening what seemed to be a gaping hole for Affirmed to run through, and for an instant it appeared that Affirmed was indeed going to make his move. But then Slew flew. His dark bay coat glistening in the late afternoon gloom, Slew sizzled through the stretch, crossing the finish line an easy winner in 1:45⅘ only [2/5] of a second off the track record set five years before by Secretariat. Affirmed was five lengths ahead of the third horse, Nasty And Bold.
As far back as May of this year, Slew's owners—Dr. Hill, his wife Sally and Mickey and Karen Taylor—had declared that the one race they wanted to win more than any other in 1978 was the Marlboro Cup. But there were times when it appeared doubtful Slew would even get to the race. Then, after winning a couple of allowance races in May and August, Slew ran in the $160,500 Paterson Handicap at the Meadowlands just 11 days before the Marlboro, and lost by a neck to a little-known speedster named Dr. Patches. The defeat was only the second in 13 starts for Slew, but it was his biggest test in 14 months.
The track at the Meadowlands wasn't to Slew's liking the evening of the Paterson, and Slew was giving Dr. Patches 14 pounds. Upon dismounting, jockey Jean Cruguet claimed that Slew was "a short horse" and would not be able to seriously challenge Affirmed in the Marlboro. Cruguet, the only rider Slew had ever had, also maintained that Slew should not have run in the Paterson and that he had pleaded with the owners not to start him. But the rider of Dr. Patches, Angel Cordero, saw the race in a far different light. "I thought that Slew ran a great race," Cordero said. "Yes, he got beat, but not by much."
Dr. Patches has a fairly impressive record. In June he lost to Forego by a neck at Belmont at even weights. In July at Hollywood Park, with Cordero riding him in the Citation Handicap, he lost by only three-quarters of a length to Effervescing, one of the best horses on the Coast this year. Then in August Dr. Patches easily won an allowance race at Saratoga by running six furlongs in 1:08[3/5]. "Since Seattle Slew was giving away 14 pounds, it didn't shock me that Dr. Patches beat him," Cordero said.
When Slew's owners read Cruguet's remarks about their horse, they bristled, as did trainer Doug Peterson. Cruguet was dropped for the Marlboro and Cordero hired. "When Jean said what he said it proved to us that he didn't have any confidence in Slew," Mickey Taylor said. "We didn't want a jockey on our horse who didn't believe in him. It was as simple as that. Angel has ridden for our stable before and he's ridden against Slew and watched his races. He's got confidence in him and so do we."
Three days before the race, Cordero worked Slew for the first time. The workout was recorded as four furlongs in 49⅕ not brilliant by any standards and certainly not for Slew, who has been known to break watches in the morning. In truth, Slew had galloped out five furlongs in 1:01, and his camp could not have been happier.
"Slew is right where we want him to be," Mickey Taylor said. "He'll run his race. There is one thing you have to remember about Slew—he loves Belmont Park. It's his racetrack. He has never lost at Belmont."
The Marlboro, however, had a very tough field. Affirmed was there, and no one has ever asked, "Who did Affirmed ever beat?" In fact, his only loss in nine 1978 starts was his controversial disqualification in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, in which Alydar was declared the winner. But Affirmed was not the only star entered at Belmont. Nasty And Bold, Upper Nile and Cox's Ridge had accounted for the three legs of New York's Handicap Triple Crown—the Metropolitan, Suburban and Brooklyn. Sensitive Prince was also entered, and the Prince had run Affirmed to a desperate half-length win in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga before the Travers and then had come back to win the Jerome at Belmont.
But, when Sensitive Prince was scratched on Saturday morning because of an inflamed jaw, the real speed left in the race belonged to Seattle Slew. And Slew did not have to worry about the late-closing Alydar, who went out of the race early in the week with a foot injury.
In the paddock a half hour before the start, Phil Johnson, the trainer of Nasty And Bold, said, "With Sensitive Prince out, it has to help Slew. Most of the races today have been won by horses that have gotten on the lead early. If Slew can get away he'll be tough. When he's out in front he's hard to run down."
Affirmed had worked to the race perfectly, but once it started he was no match for Slew. The 3-year-old got away in perfect order, but fell back, and Steve Cauthen could not get him any closer. "Affirmed ran a good race," Cauthen said, "but he just couldn't cut into Slew's lead. I thought at the top of the stretch that I might get to him, but Cordero just let him out a little bit and we couldn't pick up ground. They are two great horses, and today Slew was better. I don't know if it would be the same if they ran again or not."
When Slew was brought back to the winner's enclosure, his flashing eyes reflecting his competitiveness, Cordero kept holding up an index finger to the crowd to show that Slew was No. 1.
"I knew when we were able to go to the lead that we could win it," Cordero said. "Slew is such a nice horse and I was able to relax him on the backstretch. There isn't a horse in the world that could have beaten him today."
Slew flew past the finish line three lengths ahead, his 1:45[4/5] for 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles just [2/5] of a second off the track record set by Secretariat.
Angel Cordero, who beat Slew 11 days earlier on Dr. Patches, knew who was No. 1 last Saturday.