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Seattle Slew still a champ 25 years later

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Seattle Slew was out for his third and
final walk of the day on a recent sunny afternoon in bluegrass
country.
Of course, he led all the way. But there was nothing quick about
his quarter-mile saunter at Hill 'n' Dale, the lush 319-acre farm
that is Slew's new home.
Though 2002 is the 25th anniversary of his sensational season,
there will be no party for Slew, thoroughbred racing's only living
Triple Crown champion and oldest living Kentucky Derby winner.
After all, he was feted five years ago, and after all that's
happened, it's probably best to keep things low key.
"He hates crowds, just hates 'em," owner Karen Taylor says.
Slew also still is wobbly after last month's surgery, his second
in two years. The first one saved his life; this one was to
"normalize" him, as much as possible, from the ravages of
arthritis.
Still, at 28, the burly black stallion hasn't lost his alertness
or, despite a dip in his back, the regal look of a star. As popular
as ever with racing fans, Slew is showered with flowers, mints,
greeting cards and the affections of constant visitors. Why, he was
even invited to be a guest at a wedding.
"He still knows he's a stud," says Taylor's husband, Mickey,
who is Slew's majority owner.
"We can read him, and if he starts knocking us down or prancing
out here like he wants back in the breeding shed, we'll know that
he's OK. He'll tell us when he's ready."
Slew's retirement in 1978 at age 4 seemed premature, but his
career as a stallion was infinitely more lucrative. In a few weeks,
he'll be examined again, and Taylor believes there's a good chance
the champ will be allowed to resume breeding.
Slew was confined to his 17-by-17-foot stall the first month
after surgery and just recently began taking walks under blossoming
trees, not far from where yearlings romp in the sprawling fields
rimmed by black wooden fences.
His eating has picked up, too, back to the usual apples and
carrots for snacks and his bucket of sweet feed _ molasses-based
oats and corn.
While Slew was taking a walk, longtime groom Tom Wade stood
about 15 yards away, eyeballing the horse's every move. Two
assistant grooms were on either side, guiding Slew over the brick
path in front of the stallion barn to the grass trail alongside the
massive red-brick building.
Slowly yet confidently, Slew moved forward. Mickey Taylor hung
back by Slew's right side. Taylor's positioning was by design. His
left hand was on Slew's right flank -- making sure he centered the
horse when his back end swung too far right.
This time, the wobble lasted only a few steps, an improvement
from pre-surgery days. Taylor says Slew looks like "a crab, a bad
crab," when his front legs go one way and his hind legs another.
"It's all neurological," he said. "From early 2000, we've
been to the left, to the right, back to the left, and back to the
middle 21 times. He's been so used to bracing himself on one wall
of his stall to support himself. Now, he's got to get the nerves
going again to get centered."
Slew moved to his new digs at Hill 'n' Dale on April 1, a month
after surgery at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital. Last year, he was
there for spinal fusion surgery, which the Taylors say saved Slew's
life.
The horse had been stabled at Three Chimneys Farm in nearby
Midway since 1985, and at Spendthrift Farm before that, but the
Taylors chose the more peaceful setting of Hill 'n' Dale for his
latest recuperation.
The anxieties and emotions stemming from Slew's operations and
rehabilitation are offset somewhat, especially this time of year,
when his owners recall the thrilling Kentucky Derby a quarter
century ago.
Derby Day, May 7, 1977, a heartbeat after the gates flew open,
is burned in Mickey Taylor's memory as deeply as what happened
afterward.
Slew hit the gate at the start, smacked into the horse on his
right and nearly unseated jockey Jean Cruguet.
Cruguet regained control, but Slew was trailing for the first
time in his life. That's when he displayed the heart needed to
become a champion.
"You go through the whole deal to get there, and you don't get
the first two feet and it's all over," Taylor said of the
near-disastrous start. "Then he makes the lead the first quarter
mile and when he gets to the quarter pole, he opens up again. When
he did that, I said, 'This is some kind of racehorse."'
He sure was. Before the Derby, Seattle Slew won all six career
starts, always leading the way. "That's just the way he was,"
Karen Taylor said. "He didn't want any horse to ever get in front
of him. It was all a game."
After shoving Get the Axe out of the way, he put a hip into Sir
Sir and then pushed three horses to the outside. After a
quarter-mile, he was at the front of the pack, where he dueled for
the lead with For the Moment. By the top of the stretch, Seattle
Slew was in the lead and won by 1} lengths.
In the Preakness, he was briefly second early on, but won by 1{
lengths. The Belmont Stakes was a gate-to-wire celebration, with
Cruguet standing in the irons and pointing his whip skyward just
before Slew crossed the finish line four lengths in front to become
the 10th Triple Crown winner.
"He was the fastest horse I ever rode," said Cruguet, who
still exercises horses at Keeneland. "Maybe not the greatest, but
he was a speed demon. Wouldn't let anyone ahead of him. He was a
miler, but had great heart to finish first no matter what the
distance."
The Taylors have made a fortune breeding Slew, earning fees of
$100,000-plus per mare. After Slew's first surgery, he was pulled
from the breeding line. But he was back in business last year, with
43 of 46 mares in foal. His last breeding session was Feb. 23.
Bought for a bargain-basement $17,500 by Taylor, a former
lumberman from Washington, and former partner, Jim Hill, Slew has
sired 101 stakes winners. They include '84 Derby winner Swale, A.P.
Indy, Capote and Slew o' Gold, and have earned more than $75
million in purses.
Seattle Slew won 14 of 17 lifetime starts, and earned $1,208,726
in purses. During and after his racing career, however, there were
legal and personal woes among the Slew Crew. The Taylor-Hill
partnership ended in a lawsuit, with Hill receiving a financial
settlement, and Taylor gaining Hill's interest in Slew.
Trainer Billy Turner was fired when Slew lost for the first time
in the '77 Swaps Stakes, a race he advised the owners not to run in
so soon after the Triple Crown. He was replaced by Doug Peterson,
who then had to deal with Slew's life-threatening viral infection
that held up his 4-year-old campaign until May.
Then, Cruguet was replaced by Angel Cordero Jr. after Slew's
second loss, in the Paterson Handicap at the Meadowlands. But Slew
finished in style by beating '78 Triple Crown winner Affirmed in
the Marlboro Cup, splitting stakes race wins with Exceller, and
capping his racing career with a victory in the Stuyvesant Handicap
at Aqueduct.
But that's part of racing history. What thrills the Taylors now
is seeing signs of progress in their prized patient.
"He actually laid down for 15 minutes last night," Mickey
Taylor said recently. "That's a good sign. It shows he can move
around and get himself up and down comfortably. Even I can say he's
looking good."