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When the gates opened for the Kentucky Derby last Saturday, on the most important afternoon of his young and undefeated life, Seattle Slew stood flat-footed. More money ($1,059,257) was bet on his dark bay nose than on that of any starter in the 102 previous Derbies, and for an instant all seemed lost as Slew stumbled out of his stall with 12 of 14 opponents ahead of him. Then Seattle flew, bulling his way between horses, even knocking Bob's Dusty aside in his eagerness, and within a quarter of a mile (see cover) he was dueling with the front-running For The Moment.
First one colt led, then the other, as they curled around the clubhouse turn. Jockey Angel Cordero on For The Moment was using virtually the same tactics that had served him so well in the 1976 Derby, when he beat Honest Pleasure with Bold Forbes. He had his colt on the rail and was keeping Jean Cruguet on Seattle Slew on the outside. At the end of six furlongs of the 1�-mile race, For The Moment was a length in front in the brisk time of 1:10[3/5], but once more Seattle Slew rolled alongside. "I saw Slew throw up his head and put out his tail and I thought he was all through," said Bill O'Neill, who trains Get The Axe, the colt that would finish fourth. "Turns out he was just starting." Seattle Slew took the lead for good as he turned for home, increasing the margin to three lengths in the stretch. As For The Moment wearied (he would falter to eighth), Run Dusty Run and Sanhedrin challenged. Cruguet stung his undefeated colt with the whip, striking him eight or nine times, and he passed the finish line 1� lengths ahead of Run Dusty Run and another neck in front of Sanhedrin. It was an impressive performance—but just how impressive? Did it indicate that Slew is good enough to become the 10th Triple Crown winner?
Smiley Adams, the trainer of Run Dusty Run, said, "You sure can't say Seattle Slew won easily. I believe he can be beat and that my horse is the one to do it. Run Dusty Run was getting to him in the stretch pretty good. Everybody could see that. It was a good race for us considering Run Dusty Run was a bad fourth at one time." When Adams was asked how it felt to finish second in the Derby, he replied, "Not worth a damn."
Lou Rondinello, the trainer of Sanhedrin, said, "I don't think Seattle Slew is that great. I think maybe it's just that the opposition we've been able to provide hasn't been that good. But I'm not done with Seattle Slew yet. We'll see this through, for sure. I think the distance of the Belmont will suit my horse better."
Seattle Slew now has won seven straight. The Daily Racing Form has described these victories in phrases such as "easy score," "handily" and "in hand." His winning margin at Churchill Downs was his shortest yet, but the Form did not consider him truly threatened. The race record will note Seattle Slew was "ridden out." In other words, Cruguet was taking no chances, but the colt was not under a relentless drive. The time, a moderate 2:02[1/5], does not compare favorably with Secretariat's record Derby clocking of 1:59[2/5], but it was faster than the Derbies won by Triple Crown winners Count Fleet and War Admiral. So the dispute over just how good the son of Bold Reasoning is remains to be settled in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Certainly Seattle Slew was impressive, encountering trouble—and triumphing despite it—from the time he came onto the Churchill Downs track and made his way to the hot, tiny paddock under the stands. Each starter was trailed by a retinue while walking past the clubhouse to the gap that leads to the paddock. At times the horses seemed lost among the dozens of people surrounding them on the track. Photographers, in particular, pressed in on Slew. He was plainly edgy and became even more so as a band struck up the national anthem. By the time the colt was saddled and paraded with the field, as 124,038 (the fourth-largest crowd in Derby history) sang My Old Kentucky Home, he was washy. He struggled to get free from his stable pony. And then, because of the draw (he broke from the No. 4 post), he was loaded into the gate early and had to stand there for some two minutes before the rest of the large field was in place. Seattle Slew went through all that, then contended with more trouble than any other horse in the race, and still won.
The Derby proved he is versatile. In his previous starts he had been the front-runner, raising the question of whether he was too headstrong to run behind horses. After checking the colt for soundness following the Derby, Trainer Billy Turner said, "There goes the myth about his being impossible to rate. He can be rated, as we have said all along.
"When Slew was behind For The Moment by a little more than a length, I said to myself, 'He isn't running like himself. He's going nowhere today. He's going to be beaten.' At one stage I thought he was running as far back as fourth." (Turner often stretches dull truth to make a conversation livelier.)
The 37-year-old trainer claims he saw the race on television in the grandstand. Owner Karen Taylor, who watched from a third-floor box with her husband Mickey, did not stretch the truth at all when asked how the race had looked to her. "It was a wonderful blur," she replied. "The binoculars trembled in my hands so much I couldn't see. It was both the shortest two minutes of my life and the longest."
Two hours after the Derby, Mickey Taylor walked up the track to his horse's barn. Alongside was Dr. Jim Hill, the young veterinarian who had selected Seattle Slew from among hundreds in the 1975 Fasig-Tipton summer sale. The Taylors bought the colt for $17,500. "The Derby was a tough race because of the trouble in the paddock," said Taylor. "It was like the Ringling Brothers' circus. But Slew got the job done and so did Billy Turner. He's a great horseman. We heard people knock Billy for the way he was training the horse. They'd say, 'What's he going to do, walk him into the race?' "