Is there a 3-year-old anywhere who can run with Seattle Slew? The unbeaten, untested runner turned last Saturday's Wood Memorial at New York's Aqueduct track into little more than a $100,000 workout. Winning his sixth straight, Slew drubbed an undistinguished field and now heads for Kentucky, where he will be the first undefeated horse to enter the Derby since Majestic Prince in 1969. There is just one question about the Wood: Was it the type of win to scare owners out of a Kentucky Derby or draw them to it?
Not long after the race, Lou Rondinello, the trainer of Darby Dan Farm's second-place finisher, Sanhedrin, was on the phone calling Owner John Galbreath. "I would say that Seattle Slew's race was impressive but not awesome," said Rondinello while waiting to be connected. "His time wasn't all that good. He ran the last eighth of a mile in 13 seconds. You don't win many Derbies with a last eighth that slow. Churchill Downs is a peculiar type of racetrack, and some horses just plain don't like it. Sanhedrin was making up a lot of ground today and I was encouraged by his race." When Rondinello reached Galbreath the answer was "Yes, let's go to Kentucky."
Darby Dan's Derby record is impressive: in 1963 Chateaugay won and paid $20.80; in 1967 Proud Clarion took the roses and paid $62.20; in 1974 Little Current was blocked in a 23-horse field and finished fifth at 22 to 1, but came back two weeks later to win the Preakness, paying $28.20, then won the Belmont by seven lengths. The only real failures that Galbreath has had in Louisville were Prince Thou Art and Sylvan Place, who ran sixth and ninth two years ago.
But Sanhedrin is certainly not yet vintage Darby Dan. Although he made up ground on Seattle Slew in the Wood, he still was beaten 3� lengths, and he has yet to win a race in five 1977 starts.
In Chicago last Saturday another owner decided to ship to Louisville. The Nasty (yep) Stable's Flag Officer moved from last place in an 11-horse field to win the $104,925 Illinois Derby by 3� lengths. The performance of the son of Hoist the Flag-Batteur was promising, though the colt took 1:52[1/5] to win the nine-furlong race, the slowest time in 11 runnings.
Seattle Slew won the Wood, which also is a nine-furlong event, in 1:49[3/5], some 13 lengths slower than Riva Ridge's track record of 1:47, as well as 11 lengths slower than Bold Forbes' romping victory last year. However, the track Seattle Slew ran over is far different from the one Bold Forbes handled so easily. Winter and spring racing at Aqueduct has been held over an inner track, designed for severe weather conditions. The main track was shut down last November. Before it could be used again, parts had to be rebuilt. Since then only a handful of races have been held on the main track, and just two at nine furlongs. On Saturday the Wood was the only event run on the main track, so time comparisons cannot be made to measure Slew's victory.
"I walked the track," said Billy Turner, his trainer, "and I knew that a horse wouldn't hurt himself racing on it." The track was dead and cuppy—it had no spring and the ground would break from under the horses. Certainly Slew could not run as fast on it as he had when winning the Flamingo at Hialeah. But he did not figure to be hard pressed.
His opponents had started 82 times and won just 18 races. Only Fratello Ed and Papelote took two in a row, and Papelote's back-to-back victories were in Puerto Rico. Fratello Ed won two stakes, but they were events restricted to New York-breds. The only other stakes horse was Catalan, who had scored narrowly in a midwinter event at Aqueduct.
Not surprisingly, Seattle Slew was sent to the gate as the 1-to-10 favorite. He went into the lead immediately, but for the first time ever was challenged, Fratello Ed moving alongside on the backstretch and actually poking his head in front at one point. But Jockey Jean Cruguet relaxed his hold on Slew and he pulled off to a six-length lead at the top of the stretch. Fratello Ed finished a weary fifth.
Sanhedrin closed in the last eighth of a mile and finished nearer Slew than any horse has to date. "My colt ran well," Angel Cordero said of the Darby Dan runner, "but Seattle Slew is like a boxer who never gets hit hard. You've got to wonder what will happen when someone throws hard punches at him."