Seattle Slew’s May 7th Anniversaries: Celebration and Grief–Keys to the Future of Horse Racing.

The Kentucky Derby will take place tomorrow, Saturday, May 6th.

But it’s the Sunday of this weekend that I care about most, because, for one thing–I won’t be hungover like 90% of those who’ll fill the Churchill Downs infield on The First Saturday in May.

The other–and actual–reason why Sunday, May 7th is significant is that that day will mark both the fortieth anniversary of Seattle Slew’s Kentucky Derby victory.  And that win, as race fans know–led ultimately to his claiming of the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes that June of 1977.

So this year, we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Slew’s historic, undefeated Triple Crown victory–but sadly enough, we also note that, this May 7th marks 15 years since the mighty Seattle Slew lay down his burdens, and died at his Hill ‘n Dale home in Lexington.

Yes indeed:  tomorrow, May 6th, horses will be ridden into the starting gate at Churchill Downs amid the thunderous screams of over 100,000 race fans and poseurs.  That gate will explode open, and the collective energy of horses, jockeys, assistant starters, cast iron and electromagnetism will produce enough impetus to send a rocket to Mars.

Not much is predictable about The First Saturday in May, but this one thing is a given:  that someone will win the Kentucky Derby.

I’ll be watching the action on TV, and of course I’ll cry when “My Old Kentucky Home” is played.  (The secret that no one tells you–which you realize only when you’re at the Kentucky Derby–is that you can’t hear either the monstrous military band that’s playing, OR the singing–because the “singing” all just sounds like People Who Can’t Sing, Screaming Out-of-Sync.  Both times that I’ve attended the Derby–that overtly-sentimental moment was drowned out by Bourbon-fueled cacophony.)  So, being alone and watching on the telly, there’ll be nothing to keep me from hearing Stephen Foster’s anti-slavery song, and of course I will cry.  I don’t know why we cry when that song is played–I suspect that, something in the human spirit intuitively knows that it was intended to evoke sympathy for slaves, and indictment for slave-holders.  The power of music!

So tomorrow, I’ll celebrate another Kentucky Derby under our collective belts.  But on Sunday, I’ll both celebrate and grieve the mighty Seattle Slew. Celebration, because May 7th will mark 40 years since my Hero Horse war-danced his way onto that Churchill track–blew out of the gate–and ran his way into history on his journey to becoming a Triple Crown legend.

It will mark, also, 15 years since the great one laid down his perfect head for the last time on this earthly plane, and opened his soulful eyes in Heaven.  

The day he died, I was inconsolable.  I cried like a baby.  I cut out his obit from the local paper, and laminated it.  The laminating has come undone, but still I carry that obit in my wallet.

I was 21 when Slew won the Triple Crown:  while my own life was in a sad and confusing place because of family health issues–in Seattle Slew,  I saw perfection, innocence, intelligence, brilliance and, yes, actual heroism.

From the first moment in 1976 I saw his sleek, nearly-black musculature–witnessed his beloved War Dance–and caught the intelligent gleam in his brilliant eye–I was in love.  To this day, Seattle Slew holds the place of My Favorite All-Time Thoroughbred.  I can’t help myself, I’m a Slewpie Pie.


Looking back from today, never in ’76 could I have imagined that I’d meet Sally and Dr. Jim Hill; become actual friends with Jean Cruguet and get to know Billy Turner.  (Both gentlemen deserve membership in the Racing Hall of Fame; it’s just wrong that the horse they rode and trained into immortality aren’t in that Hall, with their steed who wouldn’t be there without them.)  In 2008, I watched the Preakness with Jean Cruguet, and…oh, wait, I’ll save that one for two weeks hence.  Stay tuned, for a Cruguet Story, a Turner Tale…

But speaking of 2008:  I was in Lexington on the anniversary of Slew’s Derby 40th win, and his sixth deathiversary.

I mustered all my guts…drove to Hill ‘n Dale…went to the office, and asked if I might see Slew’s grave, so to pay homage to him on the significant day.

I was granted permission, and drove to the place wherein lay the mortal remains of my hero.
I couldn’t see the grave, itself–as it was absolutely blanketed with at least 2,000 red roses.
Big, small, in arrangements, singles–more red roses than I thought could actually be in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

See this statue?  Yeah, well, I threw my grieving arms around this statue’s hard, bronze neck–and cried hysterically.  “I love you, Slew!”  “I’m so sorry that you died, Slew!”  “We miss you, Slew!”

I didn’t even think, in that moment, that–if John Sikura saw me heaving and weeping and burying my neck into the hard, metal neck of a statue–he’d think that I’m nuts.  And my name would be, Mud.  (Oh.  Maybe my name IS, Mud…)

Ah, well. So I hugged and cried, and paid loving homage to my Hero Horse.

And a lovely gentleman who was landscaping, saw my grief…walked to the grave and plucked a single red rose out of the masses, and handed it to me with a sweet, kind smile.  

I treasure that rose, and keep it to today.

And that story demonstrates precisely why I know–as do all lifelong horse racing fans know–that, the only way to get human hearts into the sport and keep them here–is by introducing them to a horse.

You’re sick of hearing me harp about it.  Racing administrators don’t care what I have to say.  But anyone who’s actually been a fan for 50+ years (like, me)–can remember the first time we met a horse.  ANY horse.  Then, we remember the rush of going to the track for the first time, and feeling the thunder.  (I was four.)

In other essays, I’ve ranted and harangued, about everything that is NOT going to grow the fanbase.  That has the same chance as a snowball in Hell, of growing the sport.  I won’t list all the stupid marketing ideas, but I will write this, and stand behind it:  as long as racing administrators see The Bottom Line as the ONLY Bottom Line–that is, wagering figures and paid admissions being the be-all-and-end-all — then horse racing is lost.

BUT the very moment that those same Bottom Liners pull the parasites of greed out of their brains, and start thinking about NOT the Bottom Line, but rather, about the ONE asset that horse racing has that football, baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey and cricket don’t have is–work with me here, people–HORSES.

NO sport on this planet that features mere human athletes is capable of eliciting such strong, obsessive LOVE as a sport that features HORSES.   

YES, other sports have rabid fans who paint their faces and spend billions on t-shirts.

But NO sport, anywhere on Earth, can compete for sheer, actual CONNECTION with the athletes, themselves–except a sport in which HORSES are the athletes.

So, yes, I love Seattle Slew.  
Yes, he’s my Hero Horse–and my heart still thrills to watch his races on YouTube.
Yes, I grieve the earthly loss of the great athlete, 15 years after his death.

But it is precisely that first connection that I felt with Slew–41 years ago–that moved me then to love and admire his human connections:  Jean, Billy, Sally and Dr. Jim.

It is my soul’s connection with Seattle Slew’s otherworldliness–his absolute innocence, even as he war-danced into ovals and my heart–that secures my status as his Fan, Forever.

It is this connection that is felt by millions of REAL fans of horse racing–those who were brought into the sport by the touch, the feel, the soul of a horse–it is this connection that has the potential to grow horse racing into becoming the most popular sport on Earth.

So drop everything else, and get your children–your wife, husband, friend, neighbor–to a horse, people.
(Always ask permission before you touch someone’s horse.  S/he’s not a building, or a car.)

But once you have permission, and are accompanied by owner or other caregiver–realize that that horse is far-more afraid of you, than you are of her.  (YOU are a predator–eyes forward–she is PREY.  Eyes on sides.)  Approach her with gentleness, and offer her your fist to smell, so she can vibe out that you’re a good soul.

Then, follow the lead of that little grrrl, above:  stick your nose right in there.  Nuzzle that horse.  Take in her scent.  Linger there, and allow a relationship to blossom.  That relationship with that horse may last only 10 minutes…but that will flourish, and become a connection to every equid on the planet.

From kissing a horse, to putting two bucks down in the eighth–it’ll happen, in good time.
But never–ever–will anything other than a Horse grow the sport into a Family Tradition, a love that’s passed on for generations. 

Here’s the math:

Horses = The Foundation.
Wagering = Happy Byproduct.
Horse Racing, a Thriving Sport

Get THAT part straight, and horse racing will have a fighting chance.