The way it traditionally works, the highlights of the second week of the Saratoga meeting are the yearling sale and the $100,000 Alabama Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. But by last Thursday, when the lineups for Saturday's racing card began making the rounds, it was clear that this was to be no ordinary second week at the leafy old track in upstate New York. There on the mimeographed sheets was an entry for Seattle Slew. He was scheduled to run seven-eighths of a mile, for a winner's purse of $15,000, against "3-year-olds and upward that have not won three races of $7,800 since Dec. 31."
Seattle Slew, now there's a grand old name. It was just a year ago that he became the only horse ever to go through a Triple Crown season undefeated. He became a star, and as a television attraction he even outdrew Secretariat. In those days, Slew's earning potential seemed boundless—but at the very height of his career, he just went poof. And as hard as it might be to comprehend, by last Saturday Seattle Slew had run but twice in the 425 days since he won the Belmont.
Slew won easily at Saratoga, and by six lengths, as indeed he should have against four opponents with a combined record this year of one victory in 29 outings. Racetrackers have a name for such horses: crows. But if the victory was routine, there was nothing dull about what Slew's performance might portend. With favored Caesar's Wish suffering a fatal heart attack during the running of the Alabama Stakes (the winner was White Star Line), discussion of Slew's future provided a welcome diversion beneath the elms.
The most fascinating possibility was that the fall would see a dream race between two Triple Crown winners. Because they come along so rarely, an opportunity like this one has never existed before. In fact, never before had two Triple Crown winners appeared on the same track in the same week. But last week Triple Crown winner Affirmed and Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew both ran at Saratoga. On Tuesday, Affirmed won the 1?-mile Jim Dandy, a prep race for this week's Travers, in which the Harbor View Farm's super-colt will again battle his supershadow, Alydar. And although Affirmed won, the Jim Dandy was some kind of race; in fact, few races in Saratoga's storied past have been so hotly contested or had such a dramatic windup.
Unbeaten in seven starts this year, Affirmed, with Steve Cauthen in the saddie, was facing only so-so opposition, save for Sensitive Prince, who had finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby. The Prince is trained by Allen Jerkens, who has been called the Genius because of his facility for fashioning upsets. When Jerkens sets out to beat "unbeatable" horses, he gets what he goes after with astonishing frequency—and he went after Affirmed the way he had chased so many others.
Before the Jim Dandy, Jerkens put two brilliant workouts into Sensitive Prince. Then he reached back into history and garnished his horse with Jacinto Vasquez, the same rider Jerkens had hoisted into the saddle of Onion, when that nonentity beat Secretariat five years before. When Vasquez pushed Sensitive Prince to a commanding early lead and then held it through the stretch, everybody in the crowd knew that Jerkens was going to upset another champion.
But Affirmed, who had been having trouble handling the track during the early running, finally got hold of it and came storming after Sensitive Prince. The latter's eight-length lead had shrunk to four lengths at the furlong pole. Still, it was obvious that Affirmed's thrilling charge was going to be too late—only somehow Cauthen got Affirmed home half a length in front.
The tightness of the finish was shocking to others besides those in the crowd of 21,554 that had been lured by Affirmed and had bet him down to 1 to 20. Although Affirmed's race was indeed only a prep, his trainer, Laz Barrera, had not intended to lose or even come close to losing. "Affirmed wasn't fully cranked up." he said later, "but I guess he showed what he is made of. Jerkens really must be the Genius. He worked and worked to try and beat Affirmed—only Affirmed wouldn't let him. Maybe there's some horse that can beat Affirmed this year, but I don't think so."
Well, there are at least three people who disagree, and they hope to make their point on Sept. 16 in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont, an event that is currently on Affirmed's campaign schedule. Owners Mickey Taylor and Jim Hill and trainer Doug Peterson, the men who direct both the fortunes and misfortunes of Slew, were all well pleased with their horse's seven-furlong race.
"The frustrations we have had this year are unbelievable," Taylor said. "First Slew came down with a blood disease in Florida and almost died on us. Just when he was working perfectly. That killed winter racing for him. Then we were going after the Metropolitan mile at Belmont on May 29. To get ready for the Met, we ran him in a race at Aqueduct and he won easily. But then he hurt himself in his stall and had to be taken out of training again.