05/07/2002 12:00AM

Slew's one trip west packed 'em in

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Seattle Slew is dead. So what's the big deal?

The only time California fans ever saw him run he seemed disinterested and tired, when he finished a distant fourth in the 1977 Swaps Stakes right here at Hollywood Park.

Talk about missing the boat. As it turned out, that was the only time in his life Seattle Slew even flinched. The Swaps was an aberration of monumental proportions, the nagging exception that proved the rule. By the end of his career his name was synonymous with both brilliance and fortitude, precious commodities rarely found in either man or beast.

His death at the age of 28 has left the game without a living Triple Crown winner. Such trivia is nothing more than an actuarial curiosity. It was not as if we trotted them out to lead the post parade each Derby Day. There will be others.

So have patience, and take comfort in the fact that Seattle Slew has left us with an inspiring tale, one that never grows stale or tired. His success as a stallion assures that his name will never die. His record as a racehorse was matched by very few. Consider, for a moment, the battles Seattle Slew fought and won.

His conformation was less than ideal. It was mocked, as a matter of fact, or else he would have gone for a few more zeroes than his $17,500 auction price. Was there ever a faster set of so-called crooked legs? His first trainer was untested at the top. Who knows what mistakes young Billy Turner would make? The answer, as it turned out, was none--at least as far as Seattle Slew was concerned.

Before Seattle Slew came around, no other horse in the history of the game ever arrived at the end of the Triple Crown unbeaten and, for that matter, untested. So great was the achievement on that June day at Belmont Park jockey Jean Cruguet stood in the irons and saluted the moment, even though he was still a significant distance from the wire. He was fined, and gladly paid.

The following winter, as a bigger, stronger Seattle Slew prepared to race at age 4, he was attacked without warning by a bacterial infection that could have claimed his life. The battle was tougher than the Triple Crown, but guess who won?

When he returned, Affirmed and Exceller were waiting, with help from the likes of Lazaro Barrera, Steve Cauthen, Charlie Whittingham, and Bill Shoemaker. Alone, neither Affirmed nor Exceller could cope. Seattle Slew dusted them with ease. When gathered under the same stormy roof, for the Jockey Club Gold Cup of 1978, they rocked the racing world. Affirmed was far back. Exceller won by a nose. And Slew, Slew, Slew! was all anyone can remember about the day.

That other day, at Hollywood Park, was special in its own strange way. I wish it hadn't happened. At the same time I'm glad he came.

Racing in the West is orphaned each spring, left to fend for itself while all of the game's energy is routed toward the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. The week that Seattle Slew spent at Hollywood Park, leading up to the July 3 Swaps Stakes, made California fans feel as if they were finally part of the mix.

The traffic that day was backed up to Marina del Rey and both directions on the 405. By the end of the afternoon - post time was just after 6 p.m. - a crowd of 68,115 had packed the house to see America's most famous racehorse in the flesh. T-shirts were offered as well.

Like rock stars heading to the stage, Seattle Slew and his groom, John Polston, walked through a gauntlet of well-wishers and groupies from their barn at the back of the Hollywood stables, down the road bordering the clubhouse, and into the grandstand tunnel where the runners were saddled.

They emerged to raucous cheers, the likes of which had not been heard in California since the days of Native Diver.

In a way, just by showing up, Seattle Slew had given everyone his money's worth. The sad sight of his loss eventually was erased by his renaissance the following year. No single race can ever be held against a horse - certainly not a horse that gave as much as Seattle Slew.

"I can't really put my finger on it," said Polston after the Swaps. "It wasn't the track. I guess he just didn't fire, that's all.

"But the people I don't understand are the ones that will start taking credit away from this horse now, even after all he's done, including taking the worst of it coming out here.

"Anyway, I did what I set out to do with him - win the Triple Crown. The rest is just going to be window dressing."

And what a wonderful view it was.