Bill Turner will shake his head in disbelief when it is mentioned to him that 40 years have passed since Seattle Slew's spectacular Triple Crown season of 1977.
“It is amazing to think about that. That's a lot of time,” he said with a slight laugh.
Yet Turner will happily embrace any chance to once again savor the unforgettable years he spent as the trainer of the electrifying champion.
“He was such a special horse who won so many great races,” Turner said, “and New York played a big role in all of it.”
It was Belmont Park that provided the setting for Seattle Slew's most important victory when he cruised to a four-length victory in the 1977 Belmont Stakes to become just the 10th Triple Crown champion and first to accomplish the sweep with an undefeated record.
But some two months earlier, it was the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct that set everything in motion for a $17,500 yearling purchase to become one of the sport's most famous stars.
On Saturday, the Wood will be contested for the 93rd time in a proud history that includes two instances in the 1970's when a famed champion used the mile and an eighth stakes as a final tune-up before achieving the glory of a Triple Crown sweep.
One of them produced a stunning upset when 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat finished third in the Wood.
For Turner and the Slew Crew of owners Mickey and Karen Taylor and Dr. Jim and Sally Hill, there was unusual concern before the 1977 Wood but the same happy ending that they celebrated in each and every one of the 1981 Hall of Fame inductee's five previous starts.
The champion 2-year-old male a year earlier, Seattle Slew started 1977 with a pair of wins at Hialeah. The first was a 9-length romp in an allowance race in which he set a track record of 1:20 3/5 for seven furlongs on March 9. Florida's premier Kentucky Derby prep at the time, the Flamingo, was another layup for Seattle Slew as he opened a six-length lead at the eighth pole and cruised to victory by four lengths under regular rider Jean Cruguet in the March 26 stakes.
Seattle Slew was shipped to New York afterwards, but Turner saw some troubling signs.
“I was concerned about the Wood,” said the 77-year-old Turner, who retired from training a year ago. “'Slew was jarred up in the Flamingo. He had run two races close together on a very fast track at Hialeah. It took a toll on him. Then we missed a work for the Wood.”
Six rivals lined up on April 23, 1977 to face Seattle Slew, including Darby Dan Farm's Sanhedrin, who would later finish third in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, and Iron Constitution, who would be second in the Preakness.
Handicappers had complete faith in “Slew,” betting him down to a prohibitive 1-10 favorite, but when Turner saw a deep track awaiting his champion, for the first time he feared his colt's record would be tarnished.
“I became worried when the track came up really slow for the Wood,” said Turner, who walked the track that afternoon to inspect it. “I said, 'If they are ever going to beat him, they'll beat him today.' He had to run on a heavy track and was not quite tight for the race. But the rest is history.”
The tiring track may have been responsible for an unusually slow final time of 1:49 3/5, but it could not dull Seattle Slew's speed enough to give his rivals a fighting chance in the lone race of the day run over Aqueduct's main track.
The swift son of Bold Reasoning had led at every call in his first five starts, and in the Wood Cruguet once again put 'Slew' on the early lead and never looked back. Ahead by only 1 ½ lengths after six furlongs in a moderate 1:12 1/5, the undefeated 3-year-old pulled away on the final turn to open a six-length lead in mid-stretch and breezed to a 3 1/4-length score over Sanhedrin.
“Slew just went out and did his thing,” Turner said. “The Wood was an important race for him; no question about it. He beat some nice horses that day. We got exactly what we needed from the Wood and things worked out just fine for us. Slew bounced out of the race. All we needed was to avoid bad luck in the Triple Crown.”
For Seattle Slew there was nothing but good fortune in the Triple Crown as the conditioning he gained in the Wood carried him through his sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes and gave Turner memories that still burn brightly in his mind and warm his heart.
Sometimes not even the passing of 40 years can obscure a fabulous memory.
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