It was 1977. I was the sports director of WINK-TV in Fort Myers, Florida. And I wasn't going to miss the final leg of Seattle Slew's quest to claim horse racing's Triple Crown.
I had been following Slew's career closely since he was a yearling, when the dark bay colt had born a striking resemblance to Baby Huey, the overgrown duck of cartoon fame. With an ungainly, unsculpted body and a rough-looking head, Slew had been purchased—not at a prestigious sale, but instead simply as Hip No. 128 in a public auction in Lexington, Kentucky—for $17,500 by Dr. James Hill, a veterinarian from Fort Myers, and his business partner, Mickey Taylor.
As Dr. Hill had predicted, Slew grew into his body. He had won all three of his races and the Eclipse Award as horse of the year as a muscular thousand-pound two-year-old. As a three-year-old, he had continued to blaze a path of greatness, winning an allowance race at Hialeah Park, then the Flamingo Stakes, then the Wood Memorial, then the Kentucky Derby, then the Preakness.
I had taken my cameras to the home of Dr. Hill's mother, Jean, to record her reaction to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, both won in impressive—and contrasting—style. Slew overcame a rough start to run down For the Moment in the Derby and outlasted Cormorant after an early speed duel in the Preakness. Jean Hill's reactions to the races made for great local television, but on a personal level, it paled in comparison to actually being there.
So for the Belmont Stakes—the final race in Slew's quest to join Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation and Secretariat as the only Triple Crown winners in more than a century of racing—I flew to New York at my own expense.
I arrived Friday morning and spent the afternoon hanging around Barn 54, Slew's assigned stall for the Belmont, making runs to the parimutuel windows between Slew's baths and feedings. I had long been enticed by the glamour, color and excitement of horse racing, as well as the lure of wagering. As something of a math whiz, I could quickly calculate exacta and trifecta pools in my head, and with insider tips from Slew's jockey, Jean Cruguet, who had declined all mounts on Friday to avoid the risk of injury, I was able to parlay my bankroll into rent and car-payment funds.
On Friday evening, I accepted an invitation from Slew's trainer, Billy Turner, to meet him at his "office," Esposito's Tavern, across from the Belmont stable gate. The picket fence outside Esposito's was painted yellow and black in Slew's honor, and there were Seattle Slew bumper stickers pasted everywhere inside the bar.
After several vodka tonics and cold Budweisers, Turner told me that there would be people checking on Slew throughout the night and that if I didn't want to spend the money on a pricey New York hotel room, I could "crash" with Slew in Barn 54. Objective journalism? Heck no! I was in the inner circle of the Slew crew and ready to soak up every aspect of the experience.
I left Esposito's around midnight and headed back across the street to Barn 54 to curl up next to my equine sleeping partner. The stall was under the watch of Cecil Murphy, who whittled away on a piece of pine, and Lance the Doberman, who gnawed at a rawhide. Both had traveled with Slew since his Triple Crown campaign began.
Slew was in the midst of a relatively routine night of sleep, stretching his muscular body across the stall while alternating between sleeping lying down and standing up. I wasn't nearly as comfortable, my 6'4" frame tossing and turning on a wooden bench softened with hay and one of Slew's blankets—minor inconveniences offset by not having to pay for a New York hotel room.
Sometime around 4 a.m., Slew rolled to his feet, pricked his ears and started prancing in his stable, looking for breakfast. Murphy took care of room service (two quarts of oats) while groom John Polston removed protective leg bandages and prepared Slew for a light morning jog. Shortly before 7 a.m., Turner arrived aboard Slew's escort, Steamboat, a brown and white stable pony who had become Slew's best buddy. Exercise-rider Mike Kennedy also arrived and climbed aboard Slew as they headed to the track beneath the morning's bright pink sky.
Dr. Hill observed the gallop from the backstretch, and then was there to consult with Turner and Kennedy as they brought the well-tapered Slew back to Barn 54. While Polston washed and scrubbed Slew's legs with lukewarm water and surgical soap, Dr. Hill told the throng of reporters and camera crews that Slew had "never looked so good nor been so businesslike" and that he was cautiously optimistic Slew would bring home the Triple Crown.
With Slew comfortably settled in his stall, Turner prepared the horse's afternoon pre-race meal: oats, cracked corn, sweet-feed nuts and molasses, powered vitamins, vitamin pellets, hay and water, six carrots and, his favorite treat, Jordan Almonds. The rest of us went to the track cafe, a haven for both racing's minimum-wage earners and its millionaire owners. While eating a $2.50 cheeseburger, you couldn't help but notice the hand-painted sign above the cashier: "EAT YOUR BETTING MONEY, BUT NEVER BET YOUR EATING MONEY."
Although Slew had been the odds-on favorite every time he went to the post, he faced a growing list of doubters as that day went on.
Broadcaster Eddie Acaro, a former jockey, downplayed Slew as the untested best of an ordinary field. Sanhedrin's trainer, Lou Rondinello, saw a wide-open field ("Nobody knows for sure which horse can go a mile-and-half."). Penny Ringquist, who saddled Triple Crown winner Secretariat four years prior, liked the chances for her horse, Spirit Level ("Winning is always wonderful, we are hoping like everybody else."). And William Adams, the trainer for Run Dusty Run, was adamant ("Seattle Slew is a nice horse, but he won't win the Triple Crown.").
None of this detoured my faith in Slew, my emotional ties enhanced by financial ones. I had emptied my wallet at the betting window prior to the eighth race: $800 on Slew to win, $50 on $2 souvenir tickets. What was left over was beer money.
"This is Barn 54, Belmont Park, home of Seattle Slew." With an introduction worthy of royalty and standing tall on two legs of the Triple Crown, Slew headed to the racetrack. Slew was conceited, arrogant and cocky—as well as visibly relaxed after listening to the likes of "Dancing Queen," "Margaritaville" and "Car Wash" on the radio, music that Polston insisted was Slew's favorite because "he likes what I like."
After leaving the paddock fashionably late, the field of eight settled at the starting gate without incident. Slew was in the No. 5 post position with an extremely confident Jean Cruguet in the saddle mumbling in a French accent beneath his breath, "The first one gonna try to catch me gonna die." As the gates opened, Slew's ears pricked up, fire flamed from his nose, and his body thrust forward, leaving the impression that the other seven were running in place.
Run Dusty Run moved up to make a mild challenge in the backstretch, but Slew simply slipped further ahead. Sanhedrin mounted what might have been a stretch run, but Slew shifted to another gear, going from a left-foot lead to a right-foot lead, with Cruguet relaxed in the saddle. Slew pulled away, and it was all but over, but not without a little drama. Twenty yards from the finish, with Slew in full stride, Cruguet gave a scare to some, standing up high in his stirrups, raising his right arm over his head and triumphantly waving his whip to the crowd in a victory salute.
It was a signal for me to beat the crowd to the cashier's windows. My stake of $800 returned $1,120—a forty percent return on my money in less than two-and-a-half minutes. For the owners, Dr. Hill and Mickey Taylor, after a two-year ride, it was a payoff of lottery magnitude—a $17,500 investment that was now worth upward of $12 million in syndication and breeding rights. The Slew crew all profited in some way, and after leaving the winner's circle, we congregated back at Barn 54 for a champagne toast with the one responsible for it all: Slew.
While Slew's stall was being cleaned with fresh bales of hay, I collected one more souvenir, balls of Slew's poop that I kept airtight in one of Dr. Hill's surgical gloves. Once back in Fort Myers, I found a gold-plated glass case at an antique shop, transferred the poop and had it shellacked and preserved as a part of history that now rests prominently alongside 25 uncashed tickets on the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history.
The ugly ducklin' Baby Huey had indeed grown into a beautiful swan Slew.