Seattle Slew bombed in his Hollywood debut. The previously undefeated Triple Crown champion was panned by critics as he lost, not just to one horse but to three, and finished an embarrassing 16 lengths up the track.
The star of the show was J. O. Tobin, who was something of a mystery colt. Arriving in this country after being England's top 2-year-old of 1976, he was scheduled to start in the Santa Anita Derby in March. He never made it. Next, he was to appear in the Hollywood Derby in April. He missed that one and the Kentucky Derby, too. He did run in the Preakness, but worked himself into a lather on the way to the gate, was slow breaking and disliked the footing. He finished fifth to Seattle Slew. Just another California pipe dream, Easterners said. But his win Sunday in the $316,400 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park makes one wonder. If there is a mystery horse now, it is Seattle Slew. Was he sick, sore, tired? Something had to account for his stunning loss, the first in 10 lifetime starts.
The third biggest crowd (68,115) in the track's history chanted, "Slew, Slew, Slew" as the field of seven paraded, but just seconds after J. O. had won the mile-and-a-quarter race under a front-running ride by Bill Shoemaker, the fans were yelling, "Shoe, Shoe, Shoe."
"I had faith that this was a truly fine racehorse," the champion rider said later. "He had problems adjusting to the dirt in this country and struggled to learn to break from the gate after being used to starting from the tape abroad. But I sensed that he was getting better all the time and wanted him to have a second shot at Seattle Slew."
When the gate sprang open for the Swaps, J. O. was the first out and he roared away in front. After a quarter of a mile he led Slew by three lengths. The Triple Crown winner stayed within striking distance for half a mile, but then Shoemaker turned his handsome colt loose, and he came down the stretch an eased-up winner, defeating Affiliate by eight lengths, with Text a nose behind. "I now believe that J. O. Tobin can beat Seattle Slew, even in his best form," Shoemaker said.
The winner is named for a 98-year-old retired San Francisco banker, who is one of the four principal owners of the San Francisco Chronicle. He is an energetic, forceful individual despite his years, and the colt's owner, George Pope Jr., felt his high-spirited son of Never Bend was just the right animal to bear his friend's name.
Though Swaps Day brought joy to the old, it cast gloom on Slew's young owners—Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill. They had headed west certain of victory and eager to show off their champion. Furthermore, they believed they could pick up a lot of loot with little effort.
When Seattle Slew won the Belmont Stakes, the assumption was that his shoes would be pulled and he would not compete again until August. But six days later the shoes were still on, and his owners seriously began to consider sending the colt west. "We could have put him out and let him roll in the sand," said Trainer Billy Turner, "but he was full of himself and seemed to be crying to run. But we had to be satisfied about certain conditions before we went to California."
Mainly, the Slew crew worried about the condition of the Hollywood track. The owners consulted their West Coast trainer, Dave Hofmans, who assured them that the surface was not jarring, as is often the case.
The Swaps had been run only three times before and had lured just one winner of a Triple Crown event, Avatar, who took the 1975 Belmont. But Slew's celebrity quickly upgraded the race and turned Los Angeles into a one-horse town. The track gave out 125,000 yellow-and-black bumper stickers reading SEATTLE SLEW, WHO LOVES YA? HOLLYWOOD PARK. Hundreds of racetrackers—owners, trainers, grooms—appeared at Barn 60 to admire the colt and to take his picture as he walked to and from workouts. The California legend, Johnny Longden, arrived one dawn. "Bringing the horse here is great for California racing," he told Turner. "Not since Citation met Noor [in 1950] have I seen such excitement. I've got a four-seat box and have been offered $500 for it for Swaps Day. No way. I wouldn't miss being there."