Stallion Stories: Seattle Slew

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Seattle Slew (photo courtesy of Wes Lanter).

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown. The big, black stallion was the first and remains the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history and ranks as one of the most beloved racehorses and stallions of the past 50 years. Though purchased for just $17,500 as a yearling, he more than exceeded expectations both racing and in the breeding shed and still ranks as a top sire, sire of sires and broodmare sires now 15 years after his death at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm in Kentucky.

Longtime stallion manager Wes Lanter considers himself lucky enough to have spent a good amount of time around “Slew” during his post-racing career and the horse remains among his favorites in a sea of top horses he’s worked with.

Seattle Slew
Sex: Horse
Color: Dark bay or brown
Bold Reasoning—My Charmer, by Poker
Foaled: February 15, 1974
Died: May 7, 2002

Owned by Mickey and Karen Taylor, Tayhill Stable/Jim Hill, et al.
Bred by: Ben Castleman (Kentucky)
Trained by: William H. Tuner/Douglas R. Peterson
Ridden by: Jean Cruguet/Angel Cordero Jr.

Career Record: 17-14-2-0, $1,208,726

  • Tenth Triple Crown Winner
  • Horse of the Year, 1977
  • Eclipse Award winner, older male, 1978; 3-year-old, 1977, 2-year-old colt, 1976
  • United States Racing Hall of Fame, class of 1981
  • Ninth, Top Racehorses of the 20th Century

Notable Victories: 1977 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, 1977 Wood Memorial, 1978 Marlboro Cup, 1978 Woodward Stakes, 1979 Stuyvesant Handicap, 1977 Flamingo Stakes, 1976 Champagne Stakes

Working with a Legend

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Seattle Slew with former United States President George H. W. Bush (photo courtesy of Wes Lanter).

It’s safe to say that about 95 percent of the people born and raised in central Kentucky are racing fans, or at least have a cursory knowledge of the sport and the comings and goings, and Lanter was no different in 1977 as a 13-year-old following Seattle Slew’s quest for equine immortality.

“The 1970s and the holy triumvirate – Slew, Affirmed and Secretariat?” Lanter said. “Absolutely. Everyone did, it was all the story in 1977. I remember when he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. In fact, I kept all of those issues and still have them. I have all three BloodHorse magazines with his picture on them, too.

“I remember watching every race, and Slew always came into the paddock wringing wet, like a bundle of power and energy. He was bred for speed, but he could also go a distance. He always outran his pedigree and what was perceived to be his conformation issues. But he had this intangible will to win and most of the time he did it. I know (trainer Billy Turner’s wife) Paula Turner called him Baby Huey when she broke him, but I never saw that part. He was always a machine and incredible to watch.

“Walter Farley, who wrote The Black Stallion books, said, ‘All my life I’ve looked for the Black Stallion… and Seattle Slew was my Black Stallion,’ which says a lot.”

In August of 1983, Lanter had been working in the Spendthrift Farm yearling division when he started in the farm’s massive stallion complex. It was the 3-year-old season for Wood Memorial Stakes winner Slew o’Gold, who was from Seattle Slew’s first crop, and the energy was high. And the farm’s stallion division was filled with legends of the turf.

“When you turned that first corner in the stallion barn, there was Slew and J.O. Tobin and Affirmed and Sham,” Lanter recalls. “Gallant Man was there and Raise a Native and the consistent Gold Mack. It was an exciting time to be at Spendthrift.”

During that time at Spendthrift, Lanter was a swing groom, which meant he covered for all the stallions’ regular grooms when they had days off or went on vacation. It afforded him the opportunity to get to know all the stallions individually and figure out their personality quirks and traits.

“I got lucky when I started in the stallion division because I got to work with 24 different stallions every week,” Lanter explained. “Slew was Saturdays. Tom [Seattle Slew’s regular groom, Tom Wade] had Saturdays off.”

Tragedy Strikes

Swale (photo via Aiken Racing Hall of Fame).

A son of the great Seattle Slew, Swale won the 1984 Kentucky Derby (photo via Aiken Racing Hall of Fame).

In 1984, the entire farm was bustling with energy surrounding Slew’s son, Swale. From the stallion’s second crop, the Claiborne Farm homebred carried the signature gold colors to several grade 1 wins as a 2-year-old and was headed to the Kentucky Derby after winning the Hutcheson and Flamingo Stakes in South Florida for trainer Woody Stephens.

“I remember that Derby Day so clearly,” Lanter said. “It was a Saturday and Tom [Wade] was going to Louisville, so, as usual, I had Slew that day. I came in early, so I could be done early because every year my friends from high school and I would have a Derby party. And I know this is going to sound corny, but I remember that day Slew was tied to the wall and I was cleaning him up and nobody was there in the barn yet. And on the radio was Dan Folgelberg’s ‘Run to the Roses’ and I thought, ‘Isn’t that something? Here I am, in the stall with Seattle Slew with his son Swale running in the Derby and that song comes on. What were the chances?”

Swale won the Kentucky Derby and after a disappointing seventh in the Preakness Stakes, came back to win the Belmont Stakes.

“Those few weeks around the Triple Crown were great,” Lanter recalled. “It’s always cool to have the sire of the Derby winner at the farm. Spendthrift also had Caro when Winning Colors won the Derby. It’s just a fun time for any farm.”

The joy of those victories wouldn’t last long for any racing fan, especially at Spendthrift Farm. Eight days after winning the Belmont, Swale collapsed and died while getting a bath outside Stephens’ barn at Belmont Park. The horse had apparently had an undiagnosed heart ailment, which caused his premature death.

“That day, we were working in the breeding shed and the stallion manager, Ernie Frazer, got a call from someone in New York,” Lanter said. “He went to take the call and we continued our routine until he came back and told us what happened to Swale. He said he’d collapsed and died on the bath pad at Belmont and we were shocked. It really took the wind out of us and for a while after that we all felt it.”

Happy Trails, Until We Meet Again

In the fall of 1985 Slew left Spendthrift bound for Three Chimneys Farm near Midway. Spendthrift was immersed in a battle to stay in business following a controversial public stock offering in 1983 and a string of subsequent lawsuits. He wasn’t the only one to go, as fellow Triple Crown winner Affirmed would soon follow, but he was the first and most high-profile up to that point.

As was typical Slew fashion, his departure from Spendthrift was anything but smooth.

“We all watched Tom Wade lead Slew down the hill from the stallion barn to be handed off to get on the Three Chimneys van,” Lanter remembered. “And Slew threw an absolute fit. He had a complete meltdown and would not get on the van. [Co-owner] Dr. Hill finally told Tom to get on the van with Slew and right then Ernie Frazer said to him, ‘stay on the van. You don’t have a job here anymore.’ He knew it was best for Slew. He didn’t fire Tom or anything, he just knew Tom needed to go with Slew. I actually picked Tom up from Three Chimneys later that day because his car was still at Spendthrift. He never went back to work at Spendthrift.”

About five years later, Lanter had left and then returned to Spendthrift, but things were not the same. Many of his favorites had passed away or moved, and the old stallion crew had changed thanks to promotions and retirements and new employment opportunities. Lanter was quietly looking around when he received a call from Wade.

“He called and asked if I wanted to come be a stallion groom and Slew’s backup groom at Three Chimneys,” Lanter said. “I was ready for a change, so I accepted. I started there as a groom and would end up being stallion manager.

“I always thought Three Chimneys was the right choice for Slew and for me. In a horse farm sense, they have always been the most accommodating, or at least among the best when it came to fans, and they’ve always known the value of letting people come see the stars. That was always the easiest part of the job.

“Some people came to see Slew every year. I remember there was a group from California who called themselves the ‘Derby Junket’ and they brought us sourdough bread and wine. And people would send cards for his birthday and other goodies, especially around Derby time.”

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Seattle Slew gets his exercise (photo courtesy of Wes Lanter).

And though many made the pilgrimage to Three Chimneys to see the only undefeated Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew wasn’t always happy to have guests.

“While some of the stallions loved the attention, the truth is Slew could take it or leave it,” Lanter said. “He’d get snarky and wasn’t fun sometimes. If he wasn’t in the mood to come out and he was in the back of his stall munching on hay, he’d pin his ears and run at the door and you knew he wanted to be left alone. And we left him alone.

“It had been several years, but Billy Turner came out to visit him once. He said, ‘it’s the first time he’s seen me since we parted ways,’ and I don’t know if Slew remembered him, but he kinda pinned his ears and was grumpy. We left Mr. Turner alone for a long time to spend time with his horse and I think he appreciated it.”

Not all things in Slew’s life at Three Chimneys made him grumpy, however.

“One thing Slew did love, though, was his exercise,” Lanter recalled. “Slew was an, um, ‘easy keeper’ for lack of a better way to put it and he started exercising at Spendthrift and it was carried over to Three Chimneys. They kept him active, galloping around his little paddock, and he enjoyed it. I think he was exercised until he was 26, just a couple of years before he died. But every day he’d go out there and puff up and tuck his chin to his chest. It was just… cool.

“And it’s really something to put the tack on a Triple Crown winner and that fact was never lost on me when I did it. He was the first really great one I worked with. Affirmed was right behind, but Slew was the first.”

The Natural Cycle of Life Leads to Goodbyes

Eventually, in 2000, Lanter moved on to his duties at the helm of Overbrook’s stallion division, but he never lost touch with Seattle Slew or his friend, Tom Wade. The stallion would undergo two life-saving neck surgeries and move farms to Hill ‘n’ Dale before he passed away and Lanter saw Slew for the final time at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital after the second operation.

“Leaving Three Chimneys wasn’t easy for me,” Lanter remembered. “But I had to think of it one way – trading Seattle Slew for Storm Cat wasn’t a bad deal and I never regretted it, but it was definitely hard.

“I kept in contact with Tom. We were good friends; we golfed together and fished together, so we stayed in touch as friends do. He gave me updates on Slew all the time and after Slew’s second surgery I saw him. I had just gotten Jump Start [at Overbrook Farm], so I was at Rood and Riddle to check on him and saw Slew and everybody when I was there. I didn’t know how bad it was and, at the time, didn’t know it was the last time I’d ever see Slew.

“He shipped back to Hill ‘n’ Dale soon after, and when the end was inevitable and they called me and asked if I wanted to come out and say goodbye, I chose not to. I chose to remember Slew from the good days. I did go out to see Tom and share my condolences. These horses become part of our lives and every horseman will tell you, and they’d be right, that they spend more time with the horses than they do their families. So I know how hard it was for Tom.”

Legacy Honored

The fact that Lanter was ever involved with a horse the caliber of Seattle Slew is never lost on him. He’s touched many amazing horses, but the legacy Seattle Slew left may be the one the veteran horseman most admires.

“I am extremely biased, of course, but he is still the only undefeated Triple Crown winner,” Lanter explained. “He was a leading sire, he is still a leading sire of sires and top broodmare sire. He had a pretty complete career on the racetrack and in the breeding shed, too. I mean, look how long it took for another Triple Crown after Slew and Affirmed’s back-to-back years.
“What I hope most is they don’t change the formula of the races – the distances and the times between the races because it’s become such a rare accomplishment. It diminishes the legacy of the horses who’ve done it and the horses I know who will join them — and American Pharoah — on that list.”

Margaret Ransom
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters, Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.

After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager. She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several race horse retirement organizations, including CARMA.

Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull as her favorite horse of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, three Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.