A great horse died Tuesday in Kentucky, a horse who will live richly in the memories of anyone who saw him race, one animal whose influence will be felt for many decades. The operative word here is "great," because we have seen few horses in recent years who merit the title.
The phrase rolls nonchalantly from the mouths of people who should know better. If you have listened long enough to the wit and wisdom of Bob Baffert in his relatively brief time as a star, you will have heard him refer cavalierly to an animal he's trained as "a great horse."
Many horsemen are prone to the same irreverent and inaccurate hyperbole. Since there are no degrees of great, a horse is either great or he isn't.
To trainers, any horse in the barn who wins an important race qualifies. Baffert has called Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Point Given, Officer and dozens of his other horses "great." If he had trained War Emblem for more than three weeks, he would have been ordained immediately after Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
Some of these may be great horses, but not yet. Certainly, they accomplished much, won championships and large sums of money. But great? Not yet. Greatness in the thoroughbred goes beyond titles, purses and subjective anointing by men in cowboy boots. Greatness in the thoroughbred spans time and the totality of a horse's career. Success at the races is a very important phase, but true greatness requires a legacy.
A great horse died Tuesday in Kentucky, 25 years to the day after he won the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps the shock of War Emblem was too much for Seattle Slew, who was the last living winner of the Triple Crown and the only one to sweep it while undefeated; the only winner of the Triple Crown ever to defeat another Triple Crown winner (Affirmed, in 1978) at the classic 10-furlong route. Seattle Slew was the quintessential great horse.
He was a missile made of hide, bone and a tremendous mass of muscle, the fearsome metamorphosis of an awkward colt who sold for $17,500 to a young couple from Seattle who made a living in the lumber business. Karen and Mickey Taylor took on New York veterinarian Jim Hill as a partner and hired Billy Turner to train Seattle Slew. "We didn't know how high to hope," Hill said. "Billy Turner found out how high."
He was difficult to handle, an adventure to train, but it was evident from the beginning that Seattle Slew was in a class of his own as 1976 became 1977. There was no Breeders' Cup then, and no $1-million races for 2-year-olds. There was no need for Seattle Slew to race again that year after he won the Grade I Champagne in the third start of his career.
He went into the Derby after winning the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah Park and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct without ever having had another horse on even terms. After a poor start in the Derby, Seattle Slew literally ran over horses in a race that Turner believes defined the horse. It was evident then that Seattle Slew's courage and determination were as huge as his speed. He had no competition.
"All he wanted to do," said Jean Cruguet, Seattle Slew's jockey at ages 2 and 3, "was run."
His owners and trainers feuded over the decision to run in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. Turner was fired and Seattle Slew sent to the unknown Doug Peterson. By then, Hill's hidden ownership caught the attention of officials, and he and the horse were barred from competition for six months.
Seattle Slew survived a near-fatal virus during the respite and returned even stronger and faster than he was at age 3.
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