Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Legend of Seattle Slew

It has been 35 years since Seattle Slew won the Kentucky Derby.
Seattle Slew (Feb. 15, 1974 — May 7, 2002) won the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing in 1977, the 10th of 11 horses to accomplish the feat. He remains the only horse to win the Triple Crown while undefeated.
Twenty-five years to the day after he won the Kentucky Derby, Seattle Slew died in his sleep at age 28. He is buried in a courtyard at Hill 'n' Dale Farms near Lexington, Ky.

JUNE 12, 1977, SPORTS


It's a Fairy Tale Finish

    OK, move over Black Beauty, Flicka, Trigger, Tony, Silver. Dust off those old scripts that have the white horse carrying the cowboy out of a burning building, or fanning him with his hat.
    Get the Disney people on the phone. We got a story that's upbeat, wholesome for the whole family, rated ‘G’ and has this marvelous animal in it. All it needs is a dog.
    Yes, Virginia, there is a Seattle Slew. Fairy tales do come true. For once, in real life, the prince didn't put the glass slipper on the wicked old stepsister. Little Red Riding Hood gets to eat the wolf. Cinderella was a documentary after all. Santa Clause lives. The wicked witch ends up in the oven again.
    The Brothers Grimm would have loved the story of Seattle Slew. So would Hans Christian Andersen. It's that well-known staple of fairy tales — the ugly duckling that turns into a swan, the frog that turns into a prince.
    It all began in the little Eastern Washington town of — get this! — White Swan! As we open on the scene, we see little Mickey Taylor, a poor but honest logger, rolling logs down to Yakima or wherever the sawmills are. In the background is the beautiful damsel Karen. She is in love with Mickey but he is too busy with his logs. Heartbroken, she goes off to be an airline stewardess. Mickey goes to Santa Anita.
    There, with mud all over his cowboy boots, he goes to the window, and carefully counts out his dusty old bills and places a bet on a horse who has no chance. But Mickey doesn't know that because — well, what do they know in Yakima?
    Except the horse wins, and pays 100-1, and Mickey suddenly has more money than the rest of White Swan put together. He goes around buying up timberland, he sends for Karen, and they get married and live happily ever after.
    The only thing Karen wants for a wedding present is a horse. She wants one to ride to school but Mickey wants one you can bet on. If she had wanted a car, he probably would have bought her A.J. Foyt's — but they go to Lexington and begin betting on the blue-blooded Kentucky stock.
    The next scene would bring tears to your eyes. In the auction ring is this lop-eared, fiddle-headed forlorn cayuse who looks as if he had just been liberated from an Indian raid. And he's got this kind of clubfoot. He doesn't look as if he could keep up with the Rose Parade. But the Taylors are young and sentimental, and to them he's just a puppy in the window that no one wants. Besides, their vet, Jim Hill, tells them he comes from good people and might be a sire. If not, he can always haul logs.
    So they buy him for the kind of money, $17,500, that usually gives you a horse you can use to pick up the mail on the farm.
    The Taylors called their pet Seattle Slew. They later say the ‘slew’ is a misspelling of a Florida ‘slough’ or swamp. Anyone familiar with the word ‘slewfoot,’ then the appearance of this Slew's right foot doesn't buy it.
    They hire a trainer. Now there are a lot of society trainers about, as well as a few Kentucky hardboots who know more about horses than Getty did about money. But the Taylors picked this tall, skinny kid with the lightest blue eyes and the reddest curly hair you ever saw. Billy Turner looks as if he just walked off the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. He looks like a guy on his way to buy the Brooklyn Bridge, or a watch off a guy with an overcoat full of them.
    Nobody pays any attention to horses named Seattle Slew. Great horses have names like Twenty Grand or Count Fleet or Bold Ruler. And they're not owned by ex-apple pickers. And their feet certainly all point the same way.
    Seattle Slew didn't impress anybody. All he did was win. "Well," they said, "he didn't beat nuthn'." "Well," they said, "all them other horses were 200-1 shots. Who couldn't of beat them?"
    Everyone knew that when the classic races came around, races would once again be won by horses owned by the Mellons or the Galbreaths or the Whitneys or the Vanderbilts — or by somebody that came from Long Island and not the Yakima Indian reservation.
    In Florida, a funny thing happened. The Gold-Coasters began snapping watches on Slew in training — and suddenly the barns down there began to empty. Trainers wanted to get as far away from Slew as they could. They bobbed up at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, at Santa Anita, New Orleans, Chicago — anywhere Slew wasn't. You half-expected them to wire their owners to say, "Is this far enough?"
    Slew was a compassionate horse. He never beat anybody more than he had to. He was like a poker player who lets you keep your watch and carfare home.
    But when he got to Kentucky, after winning the Wood Memorial in New York, he still hadn't convinced anyone.
    Even when he won the Kentucky Derby, Eddie Arcaro, the great jockey, who should have known better, harrumphed, "Well, I'd like to see him do that again!"
    So Slew did it — in the Preakness. The detractors were only half convinced. It appeared they wanted Slew not only to win but to disappear at the finish line or perform card tricks back in the barn — or maybe win in leg manacles.
    All this story needed to wipe out ‘Old Yeller’ or ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at the box office was a socko third act.
    Seattle Slew gave it to them at the Belmont on Saturday. He routed the bad guys, outran the posse.
    The lumberjack types from Toppenish and White Swan had beaten the Great Gatsbys at their own game. The Ballad of Seattle Slew had a happy ending. Tiny Tim got his Christmas goodie. Only in America.
    I ask you, is that a picture? Will that sell popcorn? Do they make movies like that any more? Release that in living red, white and blue. Why, this might bring back Andy Hardy. The Horse-Nobody-Wanted. I tell you, it would play the Music Hall for four years. Set records on the Continent. Without subtitles. Why, it'd make ‘The Sound of Music’ look like ‘Hamlet’ — or one of those Swedish movies that look as though they're filmed in the dark.

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