Updated on 09/16/2011 7:19AM

He was perfect emblem of sport's golden age


Twenty-five years after the spring in which he won the greatest prize in American racing, Seattle Slew died in his sleep Tuesday morning at a farm in Lexington, Ky. All of his obituaries will note that he was the last living winner of the Triple Crown, but he was more than that. He was nearly the last link to the sport's golden age, the 1970's, the "decade of champions."

Seattle Slew was the kind of prodigy that racing people invariably describe as a freak, and by the third race of his career he was obviously destined for greatness. He won the 1976 Champagne Stakes, the benchmark test for 2-year-olds, by nearly 10 lengths, running a mile in 1:34.40 seconds and smashing the record set in 1942 by the great Count Fleet.

But it is less appropriate to describe Slew as a freak or an aberration, than as a perfect representation of the horses of his time. The rise of the American Thoroughbred industry had begun in the 1940's with the importation of European stallions who would alter the species. The improvement of the breed would reach its apogee in the extraordinary decade of the 1970's. The imported stallion Nasrullah had begotten Bold Ruler and that genealogical line alone accounted for eight of the Kentucky Derby winners in the 1970's, including Seattle Slew.

Never has there been such a concentration of great horses in so few years. There were great classic winners such as Secretariat, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid. There were great speed horses such as Mr. Prospector and Ruffian. And there was one who combined amazing raw speed with distance-running ability: Seattle Slew. "He was the most complete Thoroughbred the industry has seen," owner Mickey Taylor said Tuesday.

Although Slew is best remembered for sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, those victories in 1977 did not certify him as a great horse. He beat a mediocre group of 3-year-olds and never delivered a dazzling fast performance as he had done in the Champagne Stakes. I was a detractor of Slew throughout that Triple Crown series. In retrospect, I think that Billy Turner deliberately undertrained him most of that year, for Turner always seemed as worried as a protective parent that something might happen to his superstar. Moreover, he was under intense pressure as the Slew drama turned into a soap opera.

The colt's owners, Mickey and Karen Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill, known as the Slew Crew, became overbearing presences as Turner tried to direct the champion's campaign. When Slew was ready for a rest after the Triple Crown, the owners overruled their trainer and made the decision to ship the colt cross-country for a race at Hollywood Park in California. There Slew suffered the first loss of his career. By this time, Turner was starting to drink heavily, he said in a 1990 interview; he would wind up in an alcohol-treatment program before revitalizing his career.

At the end of the 1977 season that had started so magically, the owners fired their trainer. Years later, Turner told Dan Mearns, author of "Seattle Slew": "If I was in their position, I would have done the same thing."

The Slew Crew hired little-known Doug Peterson to train their colt as a 4-year-old, and in 1978 Seattle Slew delivered some of the most brilliant performances the sport has seen. In an epic confrontation of Triple Crown winners, he outsped Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup and trounced him while running 1 1/8 miles in 1:45.80 at Belmont Park.

Yet if there was a single race that places Seattle Slew in the pantheon of history's greatest racehorses, it was one of the three losses in his 17-race career: the Jockey Club Gold Cup. This was his rematch with Affirmed, and this time Affirmed wasn't going to let him steal away. The two raced head and head in what was surely the fastest pace ever for a 1 1/2-mile race - a half-mile in 45.20 seconds. After Slew pulled away, the formidable stretch-runner Exceller made his move and took the lead at the top of the long Belmont stretch. But Slew wouldn't yield. He fought to the very end before losing by a nose in one of the greatest performances I have seen. He demonstrated the courage and gameness that he rarely needed to employ when he was dominating his competition.

The end of Slew's racing career was only the beginning of his impact on the sport. After he went to stud, he established himself as one of America's great stallions, siring 100 stakes winners including Belmont winner A.P. Indy and Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Swale. At the peak of the Thoroughbred boom in the mid-1980's, he was valued at $120 million. And he was only one of the several horses from the 1970's who left an enduring mark on the breed. Even in the 1990's, the most sought-after yearlings at American auctions were the offspring of Seattle Slew, Mr. Prospector, and Danzig.

Those of us who were racing fans in the 1970's did not realize we were living in a golden age. As we watched Secretariat, Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid (the last survivor of the era's greats), we thought this is the way the sport would always be. But during Slew's final racing season, a Briton named Robert Sangster was beginning to dominate the American yearling auctions. Soon the Sangster group was vying with Arab sheikhs to acquire the sons and daughters of Danzig and Mr. Prospector and take them to Europe. That exodus of the nation's best bloodlines continued for two decades, virtually ensuring that America will not see another decade of champions or another racehorse like Seattle Slew.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post