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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Seattle Slew and the Belmont Stakes

Since the Belmont Stakes is coming up soon, I thought I'd share the story of my one and only trip to see the famous race in person.

I grew up in Middletown, N.J., which according to Google Maps is a mere 61 miles from the Belmont Park Racetrack in Elmont, NY. As I mentioned in a previous post, my mom and I were really upset when Secretariat won the Triple Crown so tantalizingly close to home. The reason we didn't go to the Belmont that year, though, is two-fold: as good as Red was, it seemed almost impossible that a horse really was going to win the Triple Crown - it had been 25 years! - and, Mom knew the journey would be very difficult and in reality take far longer than the 1.15 hours Google is currently claiming. ANY trip to Long Island from N.J. is pretty much guaranteed to be a nightmare on a good day, never mind a day when a whole lot of folks are headed in the same direction.

Nevertheless, just as soon as we were done cheering our lungs out at the TV when Big Red won and still wiping our teary eyes, Mom declared, "That's it - if another horse wins the first two races We. Are. Going. to the Belmont. It's just awful that we weren't there."  Fast forward to four years later...

A dark brown colt by the name of Seattle Slew was taking the racing world by storm. Purchased for a measly $17,000 by some newbie Thoroughbred owners, he quickly proved they'd hit the proverbial jackpot by going undefeated as a two-year-old and in all three of his Derby prep races. Reflect on this for a second: can you imagine the Taylor's & partner's beginner's luck??? When there are people out there dropping millions on TBs, they spend a fraction of the cost of a good showjumper even back then, and WHAM, wind up with the likes of Seattle Slew. Talk about a needle in a haystack! Anyway, Champion 2-Year-Old Seattle Slew went roaring into the Derby and won it handily, the first undefeated horse to do so. Everybody had high hopes for him in the Preakness and he did not disappoint. Some said he might fall to the speedy Cormorant, but that fellow finished third and Slew held off Iron Constitution to win by a length and a half. I must have turned to my mom (of course we had watched the race together) and said, "Well????"

The trip was on. My younger brothers and dad were either not interested in going, busy, or simply not invited - I don't remember which. Mom and I were definitely the horse people in the family so I think it was the former. Probably things were said along the lines of, "Why would you want to sit in traffic for hours just to see a stupid horse race," but we were undeterred: we were off to Belmont Park, come hell or high water, hopefully to see history being made once again.

The morning of the race dawned overcast, with some rain, but that did not dampen our spirits. I actually do not recall the car trip there, but I'm sure it wasn't any fun for the driver. Belmont Park was definitely crammed full of people, I do remember that! We parked somewhere and went to the in-gate for the grandstand. That's where I got this:
Isn't that a simply gorgeous trophy... I love silver anyway, and silver with horses is REALLY nice.
Yes, that's my real program from the day, dog-ears, pencil marks, beverage stains and all! I must confess that when I dug this out, I headed over to Ebay to see if it might be worth anything in actual dollars... nope, not really. Especially not in "well-used" condition. Oh, well, to me it's pretty much priceless - I'm extremely glad to still have this wonderful souvenir.

Mom and I made our way into the grandstand and from there out onto the apron in front of the track. I don't recall if we tried getting close to the rail prior to the Big Race, or were content to stand back a bit until it really counted.  I do know that we viewed most, if not all, of the races leading up to the Stakes, which was Race 8, because there are pencil marks on lots of the pages. Looking at the program the other night, I found it entertaining to check out the sires of all the runners that day to see whose names I recognized.

Belmont runners:
Bold Reasoning (Slew's dad)
Sir Ivor
Dust Commander (know he won the Derby)
Good Counsel
Horses in other races:
Dr. Fager
Hail To Reason
Raja Baba
Gallant Man
Northern Dancer
Hoist the Flag
In Reality
Stage Door Johnny
Grey Dawn

An interesting look back! Here's what's really fascinating, though: out of all the runners themselves that day (nine races, so around 75 horses), guess how many names I recognized? Two. Slew himself, and Our Mims. Just goes to show you the percentage of how many TBs do not make it big on the track or in the breeding shed.

Here's the page before the listing of the horses in the Belmont:
It's hard to see but that's a list of prior winners going back to 1965 at the top of the page, and of course the race record holder's name at the tippy-top. Wonder who that could be... AND STILL IS.
Prior to looking at this, Mom and I had definitely made our best attempt to battle through the crowd to get as close to the rail as possible. We wound up about 10' away, and about 75' short of the finish line, packed in like sardines. The page for the Belmont itself:
Anybody recognize any of those other names? Not me.
As we were standing there a commotion rose up behind us. Two young men were making their way through the crowd, one of them pushing the other in a wheelchair. Oh, dear, I thought, poor handicapped guy! He'll never be able to see anything. At about 5'4" myself, I'd quickly realized that I wasn't going to see a whole heck of a lot, either. The crowd parted up to a point, and the young men wound up right next to me and Mom. The one in the wheelchair had a standard-size plastic cooler balanced across the arms of the chair. They weren't going to get any closer; everyone else was clinging to their hard-fought positions.

Go ahead and laugh if you saw this coming... the next thing that happened was a (koff) miracle! After his friend lifted off the cooler, the guy in the chair promptly stood up, reached into the cooler, grabbed a can of beer and declared, "Happy Belmont, everybody!" while grinning madly. Not a thing wrong with HIS legs! Nice scam to make your way through a crowd, hunh. Nobody was really mad at them, fortunately, as everyone was excited and in a party mood (and probably half of them were bombed, too).

This whole escapade turned out to be my saving grace. The guys saw that I was struggling to see anything on the track, and graciously offered to let me stand on the cooler. That helped a lot; I was now a foot taller. "New York, New York" played, everyone sang, and the horses came out onto the track. I scanned the runners, trying to scope out the Big Guy and how he looked. Drat - it was still hard to see anything. And that's when the Wheelchair Guys really got inspired, and made the race for me: "Here, get up on top of this and you'll be able to see!" They'd put the cooler on the arms of the wheelchair!

So that's how I wound up viewing the 1977 Belmont Stakes from my own private elevated stand, around 4' off the ground. I was not good with heights, and the whole arrangement was rather shaky, but I truly did not care: I had a bird's-eye view of the whole thing. It was FANTASTIC! Not to mention, my dad and brothers were at home watching it on TV, and when we got there and told them where I'd been, Dad said he thought he remembered seeing someone sticking way up above the rest of the crowd in front of the grandstand. So I might have made it on TV, too. :-)

As for the race itself, yes, I remember seeing Slew leading the race handily coming towards the finish line. Unless he fell flat on his face he had it sewed up. I was shouting, "He's going to to do it! He's going to do it!" but I couldn't celebrate too madly due to my precarious perch. If you watch the YouTube video, you can see the whole race and the fact that Slew led virtually wire-to-wire. What a triumph! Seattle Slew became the first undefeated Triple Crown winner. Mom and I were absolutely thrilled to have witnessed it, and made our way home tired and happy. It was certainly worth the trip.
Jockey Jean Cruguet celebrates after crossing the finish line. I got to meet him in 2009 at the Secretariat Festival in Paris, KY and told him about how I saw the race, which he thought was pretty funny!
My only other brush with Triple Crown greatness has been through relatives. My two nieces who live in Cincinnati are dancers, and Steve Cauthen's daughter is a member of their troupe. The two families are quite friendly. So I do have an autographed picture of Affirmed with Steve up, winning the Belmont. I haven't gotten to meet him yet but I hear he's a really nice guy, in case you're wondering! :-)

Looking forward to the 2011 Belmont this Saturday - go Mucho Macho Man and Animal Kingdom!

1 comment:

  1. I have to give props to Run Dusty Run, who ran 2nd in both Slew's Derby and Belmont and 3rd in the Preakness after a poor ride that probably cost him 2nd. This horse was tough as nails. In 24 career starts, he won or was 2nd in 20. He was one of the top 2 year olds in the country, had a consistent year but lots of bad luck as a 3 year old (including getting disqualified from a win in the Travers Stakes after a minor bump) and won 2 of 3 starts as a 4 year old before being injured. He went to stud but unfortunately died young after only about 4 small crops.


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