- Horse Racing - The exceptional champion

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Tuesday, May 7
The exceptional champion

If there's such a thing as a right way to die, Seattle Slew mastered that today, no surprise since he excelled at everything he did. He waited until the very appropriate moment of the 25th anniversary of his Kentucky Derby win and then quietly and peacefully went to sleep only to never wake up. Great horse. Great sire. Exceptional in every aspect till the very end.

"He was a true champion," said John Sikura Jr., the owner of Hill 'N' Dale Farm, where Slew spent the last five weeks of his life. "He just seemed to have an extra something that horses just don't have. You can equate it to Michael Jordan or anyone great in their fields. That what makes you so appreciative of true greatness. You see it so rarely."

There was nothing about his pedigree to suggest that he would be great, even extraordinary, which is why Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill were able to steal him for $17,500 at the sales back in 1976. It would prove to be one of the great bargains in racing history and would change the lives of his young owners. They thought they were buying a racing prospect. What they got was a horse who was as close to perfect as God will allow.

"He was by far the best horse I ever sat on," said Angel Cordero Jr. who rode Seattle Slew in his final four career starts. "He reminded me of Muhammad Ali. He was that good and he had that same sort of presence. He'd come into the paddock and you could tell he was showing off."

It began quietly, with a maiden win Sept. 20, 1976 at Belmont Park. He won by five. Two starts later, he won his only stakes attempt at two, capturing the Champagne by 9 3/4 lengths and was named 2-year-old champion. There were some disbelievers as he began his 3-year-old campaign, and they remained skeptical even after he won the Flamingo and the Wood Memorial. Their mistake was to analyze his performances in technical terms. Who did he beat? How fast did he run? They failed to understand the nature of greatness or recognize it when it stared them in the face.

But even the most stubborn critics became fans after Seattle Slew swept the Triple Crown, the first horse to win all three races while still undefeated. His finest moment was the Derby, where he broke a length or two behind the rest of the field, had to be pushed into contention to maintain his position, overcame rapid fractions and still won in hand.

Perhaps the only thing he could not overcome was the mistakes of his handlers. Rather than take the prudent course after the Belmont and give the horse a much needed rest, he was shipped to Hollywood Park to race just three weeks after the Belmont in the Swaps Stakes. It was there that a weary Slew suffered his first defeat, finishing a distant fourth behind J.O. Tobin.

He went out in style as a 4-year-old, winning the Marlboro Cup, where he defeated 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed, the Woodward and the Stuyvesant Handicap. Slew won 14 of 17 career starts, was a champion three straight years and earned $1.2 million.

The next test was come in the breeding shed, where Secretariat and Affirmed, the decade's other Triple Crown winners, proved to be only modestly successful. Their greatness did not extend beyond the racetrack. With Slew, that was never to be the case.

Seattle Slew sired more than 100 stakes winners, among them champions A.P. Indy, Slew o'Gold, 1984 Kentucky Derby winner Swale, Landaluce, Surfside and Capote. His offspring earned more than $76 million on the track.

"He did something remarkable for the thoroughbred breeding industry and his influence will be felt for many years," Jim Hill said. "He had a great life and did a whole lot for a lot of people."

Seattle Slew was 28 when he passed away at Hill 'N' Dale. The Taylors did not want an autopsy, so the cause of death will simply be old age. Twenty-eight is way up there for a horse and Seattle Slew had to battle to make it that far. In less than two years time, he underwent two surgeries on his spine to correct an arthritic condition in his vertebrae. In time, it wasn't worth the fight anymore.

"He was basically tired," Mickey Taylor said. "Trying to figure out what to do, he came up and sniffed the dog, Chet. They licked tongues, and he laid down and went to sleep. He went from being energetic and saying thank you to everyone to knowing it was his time to go. He looked me square in the eye." "I'm so proud of this horse for all he's been through," said Billy Turner, his trainer through the Triple Crown campaign. "I felt that he lived his time. You knew this was coming any day. It just amazed me that he could come back the way he did after those two surgeries. Horses just don't do that. It's still another sign of just how special he was."

The best ever? That's not a question that can be answered, especially when the competition for that title is so stiff. But there weren't many like him, a horse that was so exemplary in every facet of his career and his life. There was nothing he couldn't do, nothing he didn't achieve. Such greatness is in fact rare. He will be missed.


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