Seattle Slew, the Gotham, star treatment, and the inner track

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.

Sources cited

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.

18 thoughts on “Seattle Slew, the Gotham, star treatment, and the inner track

  1. Nice bit of research. Bill Turner still approaches training the same way, which, as I know from personal experience, drives owners crazy. He just won't do anything that he thinks would compromise the horse's long-term career, no matter how urgent the short-term goal might be. As I said, it drives me, and my partners, crazy when our horse isn't running as planned, but he's almost always right in the long run. He should be in the Hall of Fame for his willingness to stand up to owners, as well as his work with Slew and other great horses.

  2. Thanks, Teresa,Your review of those heady days of Seattle Slew remind me of all the background excitement we felt throughout 1977 and 1978. Those were certainly the days, my friend, and we thought they'd never end.

  3. "fast and valuable"…what a great way to desribe the wonderful champion Seattle Slew.Looks like a great edition of the Gotham this year and I look forward to attending.

  4. Great story, isn't it? Can't imagine what would happen today if a race were changed from a mile to a mile and a sixteenth four days before the running. Especially with an undefeated superstar on he fence.

  5. Without access to the NY Times daily back in those days, I had never heard some of these details. Kudos for sharing the subtle elements that are part of the magic of racing. Slew was a marvelous horse on the track and then during his years at stud.

  6. That's great stuff Teresa. I never knew any of that and would have guessed they had gone back to the main track much earlier back then.Thanks. I wish I read it earlier so I could have stolen it for the show in a pathetic attempt to appear well informed.

  7. How exactly does Billy Turner belong in the Hall of Fame? Because he trained Seattle Slew?No doubt about it…..he doesn't have Hall of Fame credentials.He is a very good trainer. Maybe he is better than some in the the Hall of Fame. That doesn't mean he belongs in the Hall of Fame.No doubt about that.

  8. What is truly mind boggling is that Seattle Slew's owners, against Billy Turner's advice, ran him in the Swaps Stakes an unbelievable TWO WEEKS after he won the Triple Crown. The Taylor's nearly killed him and it took almost an entire year to get him back to the races. Unfortunately, Billy Turner's sound advice, which they should have taken all along, got him fired.

  9. To Anonymous #2, If Bill had accomplished nothing besides a Triple Crown with an undefeated horse, contrary to your beliefs, hewould be HOF material. The Triple Crown is the Holy Grail of our business. If was won on a yearly basis it would not be the pinacle of achievement that it represents. I don't know what your beef is and I don't care. But if anyone in modern times belongs in this elite group, it is Billy Turner.The fact that he has not built an empire on milkshakes as some recentinductees have should not be considered a strike against him. He continues to practice great horsemanship on a daily basis.

  10. What part of only living Triple Crown Trainer do some not understand. Billy Turner is a rare breed of Horseman. He is a true Horse Whisperer, whom has always put the well being of the horses above all else. He has dedicated his life to the sport, and the sport will sadly miss him when he is gone. Time to honor the living and get Billy in the Hall of Fame.

  11. Oh boy.He's a true Horse Whisperer?I guess he is getting in with Michael Dickinson then.I think he's a wonderful trainer. But, he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame.

  12. Why not? Can you offer some reasons?In addition to winning the Triple Crown…Turner is the only trainer to have remain undefeated from his 1st race through the Belmont. He also has trained many good horses throughout the years, not just Slew

  13. Because great success with one horse does not equate to Hall of Fame qualifications. It's really as simple as that. Sure, Czaravich was a very good horse, and even Big John Taylor had his days, but if you took a good look at Billy Turner's career stats, and major race successes, I think you might have a clearer picture of this.Please don't make the mistake of thinking that I am not a huge fan of Billy Turner's training. But just as I see that he is not a mediocre trainer now, but rather has even less than mediocre stock, I don't think his limited great successes should be exagerated.For a place like the Hall of Fame to be truly special they need to be even more selective and not less so. If in doing that, a top trainer like Billy Turner doesn't necessarily get the recognition he may deserve in certain ways ( and I don't mean to minimalize this ) then that's OK as long as the greater good is recognized.If I had any money, and thus some horses, I would be lucky to have Billy Turner train them. Anybody would.

  14. Inducting Billy into the Hall of Fame can only be a positive thing for the Hall of Fame and racing itself. There have only been 11 in the history of the sport. It's a big dea.l if not we would have more won.

  15. I agree…it can only be good for the sport. I know some people have said Slew may not have been a champion in other hands…but In listening to Turner talk about all of the thought, preparation (often unconventional) & focus that went into winning the Belmont, I really believe that there are a couple horses out there that could perhaps have won the triple crown had they been in his hands. So many have come close but been thwarted by the belmont…Smarty Jones, for instance- Turner would never have let him go so fast and win by so much in the Preakness and he would have made certain the horse would be easier to rate & not have used so much energy early on in the Belmont…could have made the difference in so close a race

  16. Please explain to me how it could possibly be " good for the sport. "You figure if Billy Turner gets in the Hall of Fame attendance, handle and exposure will increase?This should be good.

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