Stallion Stories: Remembering the First Breeders’ Cup Winner Ever

Lexington, Kentucky, native Wes Lanter has spent most of his life surrounded by some of the best thoroughbreds of the last generation. The veteran horseman served as both stallion groom and/or stallion manager at the most successful and popular breeding farms in the Bluegrass, including Spendthrift Farm, Three Chimneys and Overbrook Farm, in addition to a pair of separate stints at the Kentucky Horse Park. Over his nearly 30-plus-year career, the 52-year-old has worked with three Triple Crown winners, both thoroughbred and Standardbred, five additional Kentucky Derby winners and multiple champions and Hall of Famers.

A walking encyclopedia of most things thoroughbred racing, Lanter is sharing his favorite stories about the horses whose lives he considers himself to be privileged to have been a part of throughout his career. Since leaving his position as Equine Section Supervisor at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions in 2015, Lanter has been working on compiling stories about his horses and deciding where his next life chapter will come from. Lanter also is the proud father of 21-year-old Noah, a standout baseball pitcher and outfielder at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota.

In April of 1994, longtime Kentucky horseman John Gaines announced his plan for the Breeders’ Cup championship racing series featuring multiple divisions and ages based on stallion nominations and foal payments. Now, 34 years later, Lanter remembers the years he spent and the global adventures he shared with the winner of the first-ever Breeders’ Cup race ever, 1994 Juvenile winner Chief’s Crown.

Chief’s Crown

Danzig – Six Crowns, by Secretariat
Sex: horse
Color: bay
Lived: April 7, 1982 – April 7, 1997

Owned by: Star Crown Stable
Bred by: Carl Rosen
Trained by: Roger Laurin

Record: 21-12-3-3, $2,191,18

Notable Accomplishments: Champion 2-year-old (1984), eight-time Grade I winner.

In 1984, as a few handful of horses headed to Hollywood Park and the first-ever Breeders’ Cup, Wes Lanter was a groom at Spendthrift Farm near Lexington, KY, and readily admits his focus was mostly on Slew o’Gold and a troublesome foot that could jeopardize his chances to win the inaugural Classic. But as a racing fan, he knew Chief’s Crown, as the first big son of Danzig, would be the one to beat in the Juvenile off five straight graded stakes scores. 

Stallion Geography

“I, of course, knew who Chief’s Crown was when I arrived at Three Chimneys in 1990,” Lanter remembers. “How can any racing fan not know the first winner of any Breeders’ Cup race ever? I mean, he was a four-time Grade 1 winner and really put Danzig on the map. So, I showed up at Three Chimneys and he was there and from then on he was always special to me.”

After five years at Three Chimneys with Chief’s Crown, the Kentucky farm made a deal with Arrowfield Stud in Australia for the southern hemisphere breeding season. At the time, Lanter saw it as an opportunity for an exciting travel experience with one of his favorite horses.

“They really wanted him down there and they wanted someone to go with him, except nobody wanted to go,” Lanter remembered. “I said, ‘Hell yes I’ll go.’ I saw it as an exciting experience, so I packed up and moved. My girlfriend at the time went with me and Chief and off we went.”

Lanter recalls his time in Australia as a learning experience.

“Australia is brilliant, but for some things they have entirely different ways of doing things,” Lanter remembers. “They do a lot of things in a group management situation. It’s definitely not as ‘hands on’ as we do things up here and they operate with less help, but it works — can’t argue with their results.”

After six months Down Under, Lanter and Chief’s Crown returned to Central Kentucky and their duties as stallion and stallion manager at Three Chimneys. It wasn’t long before Chief’s Crown became one of Lanter’s all-time favorites.

“Chief was always very easy,” Laner recalls. “He was always all-business. He knew his job and did it well. He didn’t have time for any bull.

“Once he had some visitors and, we all know the type, the ones who consider their horsemanship skills infallible. And you can’t tell them anything, so I didn’t tell him anything. So, this guy and his friend and myself went out to see Chief and I said, ‘I can bring him out if you want.’ He told me no, of course, that it wasn’t necessary and proceeded to lean up against the fence right in front of Chief.

“I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea to stand so close and to maybe give Chief some space, but he said he was fine and that he knew horses. Chief literally came charging, scaring the guy and knocking him back on the ground on his butt. His buddy couldn’t stop laughing and said to him, motioning to me, ‘He told you.’ And it wasn’t that Chief was a mean horse, he just liked things certain ways. What that guy didn’t know is that Chief was actually a very special soul and had he done things Chief’s way that wouldn’t have happened at all.”

The All-Around Horse

“Not too many horses win four Grade Is as a 2-year-old and then turn around and win four Grade Is as a 3-year-old and Chief’s Crown did that,” Lanter remembers of the Travers winner, who also beat older rivals in that year’s Marlboro Cup. “He was champion 2-year-old, but I think he should have been champion sophomore too. He didn’t win the Derby, but he just got nailed at the wire in the Preakness. He was the perfect all-around racehorse and he definitely passed that down to his offspring.

“I remember so well when Erhaab won the Epsom Derby. We were all watching at Three Chimneys and Erhaab came from so far back — like way back — and just got up in time at the wire. [Three Chimneys manager] Dan Rosenberg was so happy he brought us all out champagne to celebrate.

“He put Danzig on the map as a sire, but he was also an incredible sire himself.”

Goodbye Dear Friend

Chief’s Crown was humanely euthanized at age 15 after being found with a life-ending knee injury in his paddock. Lanter prefers to keep the details of the day to himself and instead focus on the “amazing” horse he says he was lucky to care for for so many years.

“He was my Chief,” Lanter says, voice cracking with emotion. “I don’t know how else to explain it. Yes, he won the first Breeders’ Cup race ever. And, yes, he was a champion. And he was a hell of a sire. But to me, I don’t know how else to explain it except to say that he was just ‘Chief’ to me.

“He had this air about him, a presence. Majestic, I don’t know. But of all the horses I have been lucky to have been around — and there have been many — only a couple others’ deaths hit me as hard as his . He was so much more than just a racehorse and a stallion to me. He took me around the world.”

***

Stallion Stories: Remembering the First Breeders’ Cup Classic — Wild Again and Slew o’ Gold

By Wes Lanter
Originally posted on October 17, 2017

Lexington, Kentucky, native Wes Lanter has spent most of his life surrounded by some of the best thoroughbreds of the last generation. The veteran horseman served as both stallion groom and/or stallion manager at the most successful and popular breeding farms in the Bluegrass, including Spendthrift Farm, Three Chimneys and Overbrook Farm, in addition to a pair of separate stints at the Kentucky Horse Park. Over his nearly 30-plus-year career, the 52-year-old has worked with three Triple Crown winners, both thoroughbred and Standardbred, five additional Kentucky Derby winners and multiple champions and Hall of Famers.

A walking encyclopedia of most things thoroughbred racing, Lanter is sharing his favorite stories about the horses whose lives he considers himself privileged to have been a part of throughout his career. Since leaving his position as Equine Section Supervisor at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions in 2015, Lanter has been working on compiling stories about his horses and deciding where his next life chapter will come from. Lanter also is the proud father of 21-year-old Noah, a standout baseball pitcher and outfielder at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota.

A racing fan to the core, there hasn’t been an important race Lanter hasn’t watched, especially if it included any children or grandchildren belonging to one of his boys. In 1984, Lanter intently followed the road to the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic since, at the time, Grade 1 winner Slew o’ Gold was representing his great sire Seattle Slew, who Lanter worked with at Spendthrift Farm. Back then, when he watched the slugfest that developed in deep stretch on that October day at Hollywood Park, he had no idea how much a part of his life both Wild Again and Slew o’ Gold would become — let alone how they both would become a pair of his all-time favorites or that the two stallions would spend the better part of their stud careers in the very same barn.

Slew o’ Gold

Seattle Slew — Alluvial, by Buckpasser
Sex: horse
Color: bay
Lived: April 19, 1980 – October 14, 2007

Owned by: Equuesentitiy Stable (Karen and Mickey Taylor, Jim and Sally Hill)
Bred by: Claiborne Farm
Trained by: John Hertler

Record: 24-12-5-1, $3,533,534

Notable Accomplishments: U.S. Racing Hall of Fame (2002), champion 3-year-old (1983), champion older male (1984), Woodward Stakes, Whitney Handicap, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Marlboro Cup, Wood Memorial.

Wild Again

Icecapade — Bushel-N-Peck, by Khaled
Sex: horse
Color: dark brown
Lived: May 22, 1980 – December 5, 2008

Owned by: Black Chip Stable (Bill Allen, Terry Beal, Ron Volkman
Trained by: Vincent Timphony

Record: 28-8-7-4, $2,204,829

Notable Accomplishments: Won Breeders’ Cup Classic (1984), won New Orleans Handicap, won Oaklawn Handicap, won Meadowlands Cup.

Fate Cannot Be Controlled

Slew o’ Gold making the gate for the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Hollywood Park was no surprise to Lanter whatsoever. As the first really good son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, Slew o’ Gold had a spectacular year in 1984, winning the Woodward, Marlboro Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and was the horse to beat in that year’s Whitney Handicap facing a talented sophomore in Track Barron and one other.

“Slew o’ Gold was an amazing horse,” Lanter recalled. “If you ever watch his Whitney, where he beat Track Barron, never has a horse so emasculated another horse as Slew o’ Gold did to Track Barron that day. That’s the definition of a racehorse.”

Unfortunately by the time Slew o’ Gold was confirmed for the Breeders’ Cup, he had developed some foot issues that involved a nasty quarter crack, a patch and a bar shoe. Unconcerned, Lanter remained confident nobody would turn up that day who could beat the big black horse, despite the injury.

Slew o’ Gold had earned his way into the Breeders’ Cup by his winning performances and as dictated by the stallion/foal nominations. Wild Again was coming off an allowance win at Golden Gate Fields and wasn’t stallion/foal nomination eligible, so his connections — confidence in full force — supplemented the black horse to the inaugural Classic at a cost of $360,000. Overall, though, nobody was terribly concerned with the colt from California.

“I really didn’t know much about Wild Again going into that first Breeders’ Cup Classic,” Lanter recalled. “I knew Gate Dancer because of the Preakness, but Wild Again had taken the southern route while Slew o’ Gold stormed through New York. I was as Spendthrift and, of course, everyone was concerned about Slew o’ Gold’s quarter crack and the patch and there were discussions about not even running him, but he was such a machine — all racehorse — so, they figured even not at 100 percent he’d be tough.”

The race would go down not only in racing history, but also in Breeders’ Cup history, as one of the most bizarre and controversial. At the wire, less than a length separated eventual winner Wild Again, classic winner Gate Dancer and heavy favorite Slew o’ Gold, the latter two slugging it out in deep stretch with Wild Again possibly leaning in to create the drama between his rivals. After an eight-minute stewards’ inquiry, Gate Dancer was demoted to third and Slew o’ Gold was awarded runner-up honors while Wild Again, stewards decided, was mostly free of the fracas and maintained his position as the winner at 31-1 odds.

“I watched the race at Tom Wade’s [Seattle Slew’s groom] apartment in Lexington on Alexandria Drive,” Lanter recalled. “And I know if I would watch that race today I’d think there’d be a different outcome. It was the most ‘iffy’ call I think — maybe ever. And what they didn’t know is that Slew o’ Gold got all banged up and Wild Again came out unscathed. I have to believe if his foot wasn’t at 70 percent, the outcome would have been different. It was my opinion at that time that he was a superior racehorse in every way.”

Wild Again was originally retired to Shadowlawn Farm for three seasons and then was sent to Calumet Farm for two seasons before the farm’s high-profile bankruptcy scandal and death of super-sire Alydar scattered the remaining stallions before the 1991 season. Wild Again then landed at Three Chimneys, where Slew o’ Gold ended up upon his retirement in 1985.

But on that day in October of 1984 watching the first-ever running of what has now become racing’s most prestigious day for all divisions, nobody — especially Lanter — had any clue how intertwined the two stallions’ lives would become.

Time With Wild Again

Wild again galloping at three chimneys

Wild Again galloping at Three Chimneys (photo courtesy of Wes Lanter).

After the inaugural Breeders’ Cup was complete, Lanter spent a handful more years at Spendthrift before accepting a position as stallion groom, then stallion manager, at Three Chimneys. At the time, Slew o’ Gold was off to a tremendous start in the breeding shed and was represented by four Grade 1 winners from his first crop. Wild Again was busy and popular despite the Calumet scandal, but when word got out at Three Chimneys that he was headed to the farm, he didn’t exactly get warmest of welcomes.

“When Calumet closed down, [Three Chimneys] got Wild again,” Lanter remembers. “Slew o’ Gold and Chief’s Crown were the first big stallions at Three Chimneys and were joined by Seattle Slew. And, then, when we were told Wild Again was coming, nobody wanted to be his groom because of what happened in the Breeders’ Cup — because he beat Slew o’ Gold. So, I said I’d do it, what the hell, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with him.

“Wild Again was absolutely the sweetest horse,” Lanter said. “And soon the people who spent their days with him like me got to know him that way too. The Breeders’ Cup became a distant memory. And, to be honest, there wasn’t much to not like about Wild Again. He was professional, and kind and easy to work with. He was handsome — what’s not to love about a black and white stallion?

Wild-Again-and-Bud

Wild Again with Wes Lanter’s dog Bud (photo courtesy of Wes Lanter).

“Back in the day, Three Chimneys was at the forefront of new and unique advertising ideas and I was helping Margaret Layton [communications and marketing director for the farm at the time] with some of the advertising campaigns and photos and things like that for the stallions. The farm was at the forefront of the best PR campaigns then and, once, when doing one for Wild Again, he had 62 stakes winners out of 61 different broodmares. I mean, I think now someone would need to check me on that, but I’m fairly close to certain that’s accurate. That is a statistic I don’t think any stallion has repeated.”

And while Wild Again’s sons and daughters excelled on the track and the breeding shed, he wasn’t exactly the easiest keeper, constantly battling a condition not as typical to horses as it is to humans. Wild Again, Lanter explains, was prone to kidney stones. It was a condition he’d combat for most of his life and one which Three Chimneys took very seriously.

“He was sent to Rood and Riddle once and they thought it was colic when I noticed blood dripping from his sheath. So, they slipped a arthroscope up his urethra and found the kidney stone. And it wasn’t an ordinary kidney stone, it was a monster. They ended up going in there and broke that one up, but they started to become an issue for the horse. So, Three Chimneys had their vet, Dr. James Morehead — God bless him — do whatever he could. So, Dr. Morehead contacted a human urologist and started planning for future episodes. He got equipment for an obese human and whenever the issue came up, he was able to treat him early and successfully. Dr. Morehead was the first to treat a horse that way to my knowledge.”

One of Wild Again’s regular visitors at Three Chimneys was co-owner Bill Allen, who, though known to be a high roller and risk-taker, initially didn’t want to put up the money to supplement to the Breeders’ Cup, but may have made the most money betting on the horse, or so he told to all who would listen.

“Mr. Allen came for a visit once and he told me this great story about the Breeders’ Cup,” Lanter recalls. “He said that on the morning of the race he and his wife were getting ready and she was carrying one of those little purses women just put the basics in, like lipstick and things like that — a clutch, I think. And I guess Mr. Allen said to his wife, ‘What is that?’ To which she replied, ‘Well it’s a purse, of course.’ And he said he replied to her, ‘Honey, you’re going to need a much bigger purse to carry home all the money we’re going to make on Wild Again today.’

“He told me it took him over two weeks to gather all the winnings, he’d bet so much in so many places.”

Wild Again, who died in 2008 and was buried at Three Chimneys, was probably a better sire than his pedigree initially indicated, facts not in the least lost on Lanter.

“Being by Icecapade, he was a total outcross,” Lanter said. “His pedigree brought so many different things to our bloodlines. But as much as anyone would want a Wild Again offspring, especially a mare, and that is truly his legacy, what I will remember about him most is that he was inherently a kind horse. Yes, I will certainly remember him for that.”

Big Brown Gold

Slew-O-Gold-4

Slew o’ Gold (photo courtesy of Wes Lanter).

In the early 1980s, it was inevitable that Lanter would become one of Slew o’ Gold’s biggest fans. As a member of the staff in the massive stallion complex at Spendthrift Farm, he joined in all the celebrating with each win, commiserated with each defeat and endlessly discussed every aspect of every one of the big, brown horse’s races.

“He was Seattle Slew’s first really big, successful son,” Lanter said. “He was almost 17 hands and gorgeous, just majestic. And watching him run? He was so determined. His ears would disappear into his neck —  he was so wanting to win. And as much as I ended up loving Wild Again, I was so sad for Slew o’ Gold to end his career that way in the Breeders’ Cup.”

Yet, as good a racehorse as Slew o’ Gold was, his first years at stud exceeded even the experts’ expectations. Lanter was still at Spendthrift when Slew o’ Gold produced his first crop and, as a son of Seattle Slew, watching Slew o’ Gold succeed as a sire was a treat.

“Right out of the gate he was a horse who was a statistical anomaly,” Lanter says. “From his first crop he had four Grade 1 winners. I can’t remember a sire who had four Grade 1 winners from his first crop. He had Gorgeous, Awe Inspiring, Tactile and Golden Opinion. It was a great time for Slew o’ Gold.

“And then he kind of disappeared off the stallion lists. I don’t know what happened. He had all the family behind him as a son of Seattle Slew and Alluvial, but he disappeared and I never understood it. But he was such a great racehorse and meant so much to Three Chimneys, they kept him his whole life.

“Three Chimneys owned Gorgeous and, after she won the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, her winner’s blanket of flowers was sent to the farm. Of course, we had to put it on Slew o’ Gold for a picture. He didn’t like it much, but we did it.”

Though Lanter remembers Slew o’ Gold being fierce on the racetrack, he was much more docile and easy to work with as a stallion at Three Chimneys. Most of the grooms and staff had soft spots for Slew o’ Gold, who was never difficult or made any trouble.

“One day, the shank broke on Dynaformer,” Lanter remembers of the notoriously mean and difficult sire. “It was one of those things and it just broke and he got loose. And he ran down toward the other stallion paddocks. Thank God Seattle Slew was already in the barn, but Dynaformer got into a bit of a tiff with Capote, but I was able to toss a shank at Capote and get him away from the fence. We couldn’t catch him, so he ran into the barn and got into a bit of a face-off with Slew o’ Gold and Slew o’ Gold went totally submissive. He literally stuck his tongue out and dropped his head as if to say, ‘Don’t hurt me.’ And it could have been bad, both were really big horses. But we caught Dynaformer in there with Slew o’ Gold and it ended peacefully.”

Some of the celebrity guests to have visited Slew o’ Gold and all the stallions at Three Chimneys over the years, Lanter remembers, included five-time Academy Award nominee Albert Finney (“he brought sausage and biscuits and $100 bills for the guys”), Glenn Close, Alex Trebek, Rod Steward and Paul Tibbets (“he was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.”)

Slew-O-Gold-1

Slew o’Gold at Three Chimneys (photo courtesy of Wes Lanter).

In his later years, Slew o’ Gold suffered from health issues that he battled until the end of his life. When Lanter went to England to pick up new stallion Arazi in the mid-1990s, Slew o’ Gold had a fairly substantial cut on his heel. By the time Lanter returned to Kentucky, the stallion was battling a full-blown case of EPM. Lanter said that though the heel injury was concerning, sometimes even the smallest injury can set off a brewing case of EPM.

“When I got back he was pretty sick,” Lanter remembered. “Three Chimneys was determined to get him well and they did everything medically available. It wasn’t about him being a stallion anymore if he couldn’t be, he was a ridgling anyway, but he survived because of the love and dedication Three Chimneys had for him. I won’t ever forget that.”

When Lanter heard Slew o’ Gold had passed away in 2007 at the ripe old age of 27, his sadness was only overshadowed by his happy memories of Seattle Slew’s first great son.

“This is what I have to say about Slew o’ Gold,” Lanter said. “He was real. And he was such a special horse. I will remember him with affection. He was a tremendous champion and I don’t think anyone could or would deny that.

“I remember the 1983 Jockey Club Gold Cup the most. It was Slew o’ Gold vs. John Henry, with Forego and Kelso leading the post parade. Can you imagine? All those horses on track at the same time together? Of course Kelso colicked and died the next day, but it was a rare treat. Made only better by Slew o’ Gold’s victory.”

Remembered Together On Track, In The Breeding Shed

During their sire duties at Three Chimneys, Slew o’ Gold and Wild Again lived in the main stallion barn, catty-corner from each other and near the great Seattle Slew for a number of years until each were pensioned. Lanter often wondered if they remembered each other while reflecting on his great fortune having them both in his life.

“The thing about me is that I was a racing fan first; I was the little kid who would ride my bike pretending to be Ron Turcotte,” Lanter says. “I never thought — ever — in my wildest dreams I’d have the career I’ve had so far or be so blessed to have horses like the top two finishers in the first Breeders’ Cup Classic in my life. Those of us who were there with them are members of a very exclusive club and we’re all very proud of that.

“One time, it must have been during the Keeneland sales, Bill Allen and [Slew o’ Gold’s owner] Mickey Taylor and [Gate Dancer’s owner] Kenneth Oppenheim were all at Three Chimneys, the triumvirate of the first Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was a little uncomfortable, even that much after the fact. Opstein basically said, ‘Slew o’ Gold screwed me out of winning the first Breeders’ Cup.’ And Mickey Taylor, God bless him, didn’t say a word. It was kind of fun to watch them all awkwardly interact.”

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.