The Heart That Wears the Crown: Seattle Slew

October 30th, 2023

The 1970s was a decade rivaled only by the 1940s in the depth of great horses and great performances. Secretariat ended the 25-year Triple Crown drought, his dazzling turns around the classics hinting at what was to come. Two more would follow in his footsteps, adding their names to the short list of immortals and leaving their own marks on the sport.

He was born in a plain brown package, but Seattle Slew was anything but plain. The 10th Triple Crown winner’s humble beginnings belied the deep talent inside this champion, a horse with strength and speed to spare and a heart that loved to run.

Baby Huey

Ben Castleman needed a sire for his stakes-winning mare’s first cover. My Charmer, a granddaughter of Hall of Famer Round Table, was supposed to visit Jacinto, a son of the late Bold Ruler, at Claiborne Farm, but the stallion’s book was full and Castleman asked Seth Hancock for an alternative in his price range. Hancock suggested Bold Reasoning, a grandson of Bold Ruler whose damsire was leading sire Hail to Reason, whose $5,000 stud fee happened to be right in Castleman’s range. Eleven months later, My Charmer’s brief meeting with Bold Reasoning yielded a plain brown colt with floppy ears, a colt whose “head seemed coarse and large, out of proportion, and the legs looked awkwardly long even by the leggy standards of newborn foals.”

My Charmer’s plain brown colt showed something special from the get-go despite his gawky physique. “He was the boss, even when he was little,” Paul Mallory, Castleman’s farm manager, remembered. “Didn’t nobody bother him while he was eating.” He was playful and strong but did not bully others and was always the first to arrive whenever the feed tubs were rattled. He was already 700 pounds when he celebrated his first birthday, but he still retained that same awkwardness of a young colt growing into his frame. His conformation plus his pedigree knocked him out of contention for Keeneland’s summer yearling sale, but Fasig-Tipton accepted him for theirs.

My Charmer’s first foal went through the ring as Hip 128 and sold for $17,500 to the partnership of Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill. Christened Seattle Slew, he headed to Maryland to learn to be a racehorse.

Growing Pains

The problem with Seattle Slew, though, was that he could be stubborn. When Paula Turner first saw a young Slew, she nicknamed him Baby Huey because he was already a good-sized horse with a brain that was still catching up. The first day she rode him, though, the colt engaged in a battle of wills with Turner: he circled the paddock a few times and then planted his feet and refused to move. Her attempts to get him to move were of no avail so she gave him a few whacks with a riding crop and off he went. From then on, he did everything a rider would ask of him, but retained that confidence that was so integral to his personality. That confidence enabled him to march past obstacles that might spook another horse and stay focused on his task. “This is an unusual horse, Billy,” Turner told her husband, trainer for the Taylors and the Hills. “Very determined. I can’t believe how businesslike he is.”

At two, as Billy Turner prepared him for that first race, Seattle Slew was still awkwardly galloping along with a workmate, not quite interested in what he was doing until the exercise rider chirped to him for more. And he gave more than anyone could have anticipated. He left the workmate behind and returned to his trainer snorting and blowing and ready for more. He had found what he loved to do: run. 

Turner’s biggest challenge with My Charmer’s colt was to keep him from running too fast when all he needed was a workout. Replete with speed and stamina, Seattle Slew quickly grabbed attention, putting together a short juvenile campaign of three starts and three wins and earning an Eclipse for champion two-year-old colt.

In a year, My Charmer’s colt had gone from gawky teenager to sleek and powerful racehorse, one on the cusp of something special.

Seattle Slew and jockey Jean Cruguet win the 1977 Belmont Stakes. (Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times Collection) This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Full Power

At three, Slew was full powered. Equipped with the distinctive Sure-Win headpiece to hold the bit in place, he continued to show his love for running, with workouts so fast that he could have broken track records. He was also “a lot of horse,” so strong that he reached out and grabbed Steamboat, the stable pony, on the neck and lifted the pony off the ground. 

Billy Turner endured criticism about how he trained Slew leading up to the Kentucky Derby, but the trainer knew he had to: The colt would give more than asked, so he had to be managed. Throughout it all, Seattle Slew remained good-natured.

Early in his two-year-old season, he ran a fever, but rather than act listless as most horses would, he was still bouncing playfully around his stall. Just before the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah, Slew had stood around looking lethargic and laid down and fell asleep. Concerned, Turner took his temperature, but found it to be normal. Hours later, Slew ran the fastest seven furlongs in the track’s history to that point. Again on Derby Day, he galloped, got a bath, and then promptly laid down and dozed off before running for the roses and winning by 1 3/4 lengths.

Though he got nervous before the Derby, the crowd and the atmosphere causing him to sweat, Seattle Slew was placid before dominating the Preakness and then so chill before the Belmont that he stopped at every crossing on the path from the barn to paddock, delaying the race by a few minutes. From his earliest days through his many turns on the racetrack, Seattle Slew carried himself as the determined horse that he had been with Paula Turner and the playful one that jumped around in his stall before feeding time and would flop down for a nap before a big race.

For the last phase of his life, Seattle Slew retired to Spendthrift Farm to stand stud, leaving behind a racing career marked by a Triple Crown, multiple Eclipse Awards, and stunning performances. As he entered a Spendthrift paddock for the first time, men were stationed around the perimeter in case he decided to jump the fence and keep running. Instead, Slew jogged into the middle of the grassy expanse, rolled around for a moment, and then started grazing.

Over his two decades at stud, he sired horses like Landaluce, A.P. Indy, and Swale, and as a broodmare sire, many more, passing on the heart that had brought him to the sport’s highest heights.

Seattle Slew overcame his unassuming pedigree and humble roots to become one of the sport’s greats in an era replete with icons, his name added to the short list of horses to wear the crown. Blessed with strength and speed, My Charmer’s colt was both dominant and determined on the track and playful off of it, beloved by those closest to him and the fans who stood trackside whenever he ran. The heart that won the 10th Triple Crown set a high bar for those who followed him, demonstrating exactly what it takes to realize greatness.