Nearly daily since last summer, some element of the behavior of Zenyatta, Rachel
Alexander Alexandra, John Shirreffs, Steve Asmussen, the Mosses and/or Jess Jackson has been the subject of some article, some blog post, some Twitter comment. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the connections and the horses are superstars of the sport, and in our little world, they’ve achieved the status of the spoiled, well-paid, often entitled athletes in more mainstream sports.
In researching a post on Aqueduct’s inner track (to be up next week), I came across a series of New York Times articles on the 1977 Gotham—the race in which Seattle Slew didn’t run. But during his stay in New York, he was indeed the pampered houseguest around whom, it seems, all things racing revolved.
The inner track had been installed the prior fall, in an attempt to save winter racing days and avoid weather-related cancellations. One wonders what might have happened to the 1977 Gotham had the new winter track not existed.
On March 25th, Seattle Slew had romped in the Flamingo at Hialeah, and shortly thereafter he shipped north with an eye towards the Gotham on April 9th. He arrived at Belmont on April 1st and took up residence in Barn 60, home of John Hay Whitney and Greentree Stable horses. According to Gerald Eskenazi, a “No visitors” sign was prominently displayed.
“They must think a lot of this horse,” said [John] Polston [Seattle Slew’s groom]. “Nobody,” he said, capitalizing the word, “nobody ever uses the Greentree stalls.” (“Belmont Park Welcomes Seattle Slew”)
The son of Bold Reasoning was given around-the-clock armed protection. And then the fun really began: for racing fans, track executives, and turf writers covering the race.
On April 5th, four days before the race, NYRA made the call to move the race from a mile on the main track to a mile and a sixteenth on the inner.
Joe King, the track superintendent, said the base was still not settled on the chute of the main 1 1/8-mile [main] track. The Gotham, an important race for 3-year-olds pointed for the Kentucky Derby, was to have been raced at a mile. Because of the switch to the winterized inner track, it will be held at 1 1/6 miles. (“Gotham is Switched to Inner Track”)
In response to the change, Billy Turner, Seattle Slew’s trainer, indicated that whether Slew ran in the Gotham would not depend on the track and distance, but whether the horse was ready.
The next day, Steve Cady reported that Karen and Mickey Taylor, the horse’s owners, would decide that day on whether to run their undefeated colt on Saturday; Cady also announced that Slew was scheduled to be on the track the next morning at 6 a.m. I have visions of photographers and turf writers showing up at Belmont then, much as they did at 5:30 a.m. each Monday last summer at Saratoga, to see Rachel Alexandra work.
On April 7th, two days before the race, Cady reported that Seattle Slew would not run in the Gotham—sort of.
Shortly after 9 A.M. [on April 6th, the previous day], Seattle Slew’s trainer, Billy Turner, told the track’s racing secretary, Tommy Trotter, the colt would “definitely not” run in the Gotham. But at noontime, after Seattle Slew had gone for a muddy gallop at Belmont Park, his owners indicated that nothing was certain.
“It’s not definite he won’t run,” said Mickey Taylor as he left the barn with his wife, Karen. “We’ll play it by ear.” (“Owners of Seattle Slew Hedge”)
[Digression: what a great name for a racing secretary: Tommy Trotter.]
NYRA had prepared a slew (forgive me!) of print and television advertising that it reportedly pulled early in the day on the 6th, preparing for Slew’s absence. Turner’s concern was the lack of training time that Seattle Slew was getting because of the muddy going.
What bothered Turner was that the recent rains left racing surfaces at both Belmont and Aqueduct too muddy for a workout by such a fast and valuable horse as Seattle Slew.
“They’re talking about 25-degree weather tonight,” he said yesterday, “so I probably wouldn’t work him on Thursday, either. By declaring out of the Gotham, I thought it would help Tommy Trotter put together a larger field.” (“Owners of Seattle Slew”)
Meanwhile, Slew was getting the full diva treatment at his nearly empty Belmont Park home.
He has an entire barn virtually to himself, sharing it only with a 2-year-old stablemate and a cow pony. Yesterday, he was permitted to gallop once around the main 1 ½-mile track after the normal 10:30 A.M. close of training.
Yet even with the Derby more than four weeks away, the media crush has become so heavy that the Taylors issued some restrictions yesterday. Under the straw-curtain
policy, all the people associated with the horse will be available at the barn
from 6 A.M. to 11 A.M. every Monday and Tuesday. Except on days when Seattle
Slew has a workout, the barn presumably will be off limits the rest of the week.
(“Owners of Seattle Slew Hedge”)
And ultimately, of course, Seattle Slew did not run in the Gotham; Cormorant won the race that year, and two weeks later, Seattle Slew made his Aqueduct début in the Wood Memorial, winning by 3 ¼ lengths over the main track. And then, one can only assume, the star treatment began in earnest.
With the main track in such bad shape in that late April 33 years ago, Aqueduct’s decision to lay down a winterized track in 1976 must have quickly seemed like a good decision. More on that next week.
Cady, Steve. “Owners of Seattle Slew Hedge Gotham Verdict.” Nytimes.com. New York Times. 7 April 1977. 4 March 2010.
Cady, Steve. “Seattle Slew Is Sharp; Gotham Decision Today.” Nytimes.com. New York Times. 6 April 1977. 4 March 2010.
Eskanazi, Gerald. “Belmont Park Welcomes Seattle Slew.” Nytimes.com. New York Times. 1 April 1977. 4 March 2010.
Katz, Michael. “Gotham is Switched to Inner Track.” Nytimes.com. New York Times. 5 April 1977. 4 March 2010.