It was at 3:30 a.m. last Saturday, an hour when even most of frenetic New York takes a rest, that Seattle Slew started knocking about in Stall 2, Barn 54 at Belmont Park. He had spent a routine night, with three stretches of lying down and three stretches of standing up, the horse equivalent of rolling over and rearranging pillows without disturbing one's sleep.
Now Slew is signaling for breakfast. Responding is Chet Taylor, father of Mickey Taylor. Chet dumps two quarts of oats into a rubber bucket. Silently. Chet, like Mickey, is a Washington state logger who feels the only thing better than one word is no words. Then he moves out of Slew's view. Why? He gives a speech: "Because who wants somebody watching them in their bedroom? It's not polite." Slew spends better than an hour eating and dozing, like a gluttonous and fawned-over king who knows that his every whim will be catered to. It will be.
With the night now giving way to an uncertain pink glow over Long Island, the day starts on which Seattle Slew will complete his Triple Crown. It would be nice to report that his day of triumph was highlighted by visits from the high and the mighty, by a flood of telegrams, by thousands anxious to pay homage at his barn, by the painting of a commissioned work and by the mayor naming a street for him. Not so. Slew's barn is a place of tedium and boredom.
That is the irony. For on the day that belonged to Slew, on the day that tens of thousands came to Belmont and millions more watched on television, the horse was largely ignored—save for those few moments on the racetrack. Of course, any athlete who is a weak conversationalist tends to get ignored.
Slew's world around Barn 54 is utterly different from the hoopla and partying and wagering that swirl elsewhere. There is a different rhythm around the barn; it is an odd environment where there is not much to do but wait. Which, goes human thinking, is just what the horse likes. In Slew's case, he has almost 14 hours to kill. At 5:22 a.m. groom John Polston, 33, arrives, and Slew promptly makes a grab for his hat. "To be truthful," says Polston, "I don't like horses. But I do like what they can do for you." Polston views his job as simply the underpinning for his principal work: gambling. (The day before, he says, he won $90 playing poker.) No gambling on Slew, though. Says Polston, "When I realized he would be a nice horse, I was in a bad streak and I didn't want to jinx him." Off come the protective bandages on Slew's legs as other employees start arriving.
Slew, clearly full of himself, is taken to the track at 6:45 a.m. for a trifling gallop in the mud. Everyone swears SS has never looked so good nor been so businesslike, making only one buck and one squeal before getting down to work. If ever a horseman said anything else, time would stop. Polston washes the mud off with lukewarm water (lesser animals often have to endure cold blasts from the garden hose) and later scrubs Slew's legs with surgical soap.
By 8:07 a.m. Slew is back in his stall, where he will remain until the race. A kind of waiting malaise sinks in. The television people leave; reporters do, too, Cecil Murphy, one of the men who help watch Slew, whittles on a 2-by-2-inch piece of pine with a $14 stock knife. Whittling is the classic time-waster and thus has generally fallen from favor, because it's so obvious one is doing nothing. Murphy cut himself twice during the Preakness. He says, "I have to cut myself before it seems like a knife is any good." Other major activities are leaning on fences, drinking coffee and digging in dirt with feet. Says Murphy, "All this waiting is obnoxious, but that's the way it is."
Conversation tends to be not about the race but about the weather, which is uncertain. Billy Turner hurries around asking, "What do you think?" He doesn't really care. Meanwhile, Slew does nothing except stand with his backside to the front of the stall. "I like it," says Mickey Taylor, "since that's the only view any of the other horses ever get of him." Slew gets more oats at 10 a.m., but not a fresh bed because he would eat the new straw, which could make him logy for the race. How does Polston know that SS likes hard rock on the radio in the mornings, soft jazz in the afternoons? "Because he likes what I like." Nice match.
The malaise grows and each event takes on great importance. At 12:52 p.m. the trash man comes and puts a new liner in the can. There is discussion about that. At 2:01 the phone rings and Polston, Murphy and Chet Taylor all volunteer to answer it. Murphy observes at 2:05 that the doves around Barn 54 are "awful tame." Polston says at 2:18 that the $3.50 steak at a track restaurant is pretty good; the Pinkerton man says he doesn't like steak. That ends that discussion. A telegram arrives at 2:45 for Karen Taylor. There is discussion about that, including who will sign for it. Debby Goldman is using Blue Ribbon No. 22 metal polish at 3:15 to shine up the brass name-plates on Slew's halter and says, "We'll dazzle the opposition." She also says, "I tend to put my foot in my mouth. Sole food." There is discussion about that. Slew sleeps, standing up.
At 4:07 Polston starts wiping Slew off with a sponge. At 4:56 Turner grumbles, "I forgot to polish my shoes." And finally at 5:20, after the 14-hour wait that only seemed an eternity, Slew heads for the race. With an entourage of 22, he's like the Pied Piper. A late Pied Piper, it turns out, delayed during his journey to the paddock by parked cars which dictate a circuitous route. The race is set back nine minutes. Moments before the start, Turner grabs a stiff vodka drink, sets the outdoor record for consuming it (four seconds) and, part of a mob under the grandstand, watches his charge do his stuff. Sort of. "Frankly," says Turner, "I can't see a damn thing."