Whatever currently ails horse racing could be quickly cured by a dose of what took place 30 years ago today.
On Sept. 16, 1978, in an era when racing thrived and there seemed to be an assembly line of Triple Crown winners, something extraordinary happened. And it happened again 28 days later.
Two Triple Crown winners raced against each other. Seattle Slew, the ’77 winner, took on Affirmed, the ’78 winner. It had never happened before, may never happen again.
There have been only 11 Triple Crown winners in history and only once did they come in consecutive years. But Secretariat had won in ’73, and Seattle Slew and Affirmed had made it three in six years.
Now, if there were Triple Crown winners close enough in time to be able to compete on the track, it still wouldn’t happen. One or both horses would be in the breeding shed, filling the pockets of syndication owners with stud-fee cash.
In the late ‘70s, breeding greed hadn’t yet overtaken the industry. While Affirmed polished off Alydar in probably the greatest Triple Crown series ever, the Taylors of Seattle, Mickey and Karen, and their partner, Jim Hill, kept campaigning their horse Seattle Slew as a 4-year-old.
Slew would eventually turn out to be a great sire, fathering, among others, 1984 Kentucky Derby winner Swale and 1992 horse of the year A.P. Indy. But at age 4, there was still racing in his, and his owners’, blood.
And so, on that day at Belmont Park, in the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap, two Triple Crown winners loaded in the same gate for the first time.
Affirmed had battled Alydar for the Triple Crown and kept right on racing, losing only once that season, on a disqualification to Alydar. Seattle Slew had missed much of his ’77 winter season because of a life-threatening ailment but had battled back and was pointed for this race. Affirmed owners Lou and Patrice Wolfson and trainer Laz Barrera were just as eager.
Affirmed’s classic duels with Alydar probably influenced the betting line and made him the 1-5 favorite over Slew. Also, Affirmed would carry 124 pounds, four less than the older Slew, horse racing’s weight-for-age tradition.
Also, there was more intrigue -- and the perception of less stability -- in the Seattle Slew camp going into the race.
Only 11 days before the Marlboro Cup, Seattle Slew had lost to a horse named Dr. Patches in the Paterson Handicap at the Meadowlands. After the race, Jean Cruguet, winner of 11 of 13 races on Seattle Slew, angered the owners by saying the horse wasn’t up to the matchup with Affirmed. Cruguet was fired, and the jockey who had ridden Dr. Patches, Angel Cordero, was hired.
Bill Christine, former horse racing writer for The Times and now a columnist for Horseraceinsider.com, speculates on the circumstances.
“Cordero was a master at getting in the heads of the other jockeys,” Christine says. “By the eighth race that day at the Meadowlands, he likely had worked Cruguet over pretty well.”
Many experts saw Seattle Slew’s close defeat that day as a positive sign, because he carried 128 pounds, 14 more than Dr. Patches.
In the Marlboro race, Cordero took Seattle Slew to the front and stayed there. He led Affirmed by two lengths with a slow 24-second first quarter, and stayed about the same in a slow 47-second half-mile. Seattle Slew turned for home, drifted to the middle of the track, almost as if to tease Affirmed with an opening on the rail, and then merely held his ground to win by three lengths.
Two of the 11 greatest horses in history had faced off, and one had gone wire to wire. And, Seattle Slew had closed so strongly that his finish time of 1:45 4/5 , despite his slow start, was only two-fifths off Secretariat’s track record.
Incredibly, although scheduled to race Affirmed again in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont a month later, Seattle Slew ran, and won, the Woodward Stakes at Belmont on Sept. 30, 1978. From Sept. 5 to Nov. 11 of that year, Seattle Slew ran five races, all at 1 1/8 miles or longer.
Today’s thoroughbred horses have been so inbred for speed, rather than endurance or durability, that they couldn’t take that kind of workload. Nor could their owners, who, for the most part, are more investment-protectors than race-seekers.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 14, 1978, was like a great boxing showdown. The match had made the rematch.
Also entered with Affirmed and Seattle Slew was Exceller, a 5-year-old trained by Charlie Whittingham and ridden by Bill Shoemaker. Exceller had ridden mostly in California that year, and mostly on grass. He had already won the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Hollywood Turf Invitational, the San Juan Capistrano, the Sunset Handicap and the Oak Tree Invitational.
Still, all eyes were on Affirmed and Seattle Slew and stayed there as Slew took the field through a blazing pace. He hit 22.3 seconds for the first quarter and 45.1 for the half, and Affirmed was right there on his right shoulder for most of that. With a mile to go, Exceller was 30 lengths back.
But as they started the final turn, Affirmed, with Steve Cauthen aboard, fell back slowly. Cauthen was holding on more than riding, and later revealed his saddle had started to slip and probably hadn’t been tightened properly in the paddock.
Exceller, suddenly moving as if he had been tossed from a catapult, appeared in the picture and took off after Seattle Slew, slipping by on the inside in the homestretch. He got ahead by a length, and few horses, once passed, will fight back at that late stage of the race. But Seattle Slew was like few horses.
He made a late charge, pulled ahead for a second, fell back and then was charging again as Exceller got his nose in front at the wire.
Bill Nack of Sports Illustrated wrote later: “Exceller won by the snip of his chocolate nose. . . . That battling final furlong remains [Seattle Slew’s] most enduring legacy as a racehorse.”
Affirmed died in 2001 and Seattle Slew in 2002, both comfortable on farms. That left us, for the first time in nearly a century, with no living Triple Crown winner.
Exceller turned out to be an unproductive sire, and despite his millionaire status and eventual Hall of Fame election, alongside Affirmed and Seattle Slew, he was eventually shipped to Europe and lived there until his owner went bankrupt.
In 1997, Exceller, the only horse ever to beat two Triple Crown champions in the same race, was sold for the value of his meat and butchered in a slaughterhouse.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.