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Breeders' Cup 2017

What a Jockey Club Gold Cup it Was

Seattle Slew
Last week, in honor of the Pennsylvania Derby, I recalled perhaps the most spectacular performance I ever saw in person, when Broad Brush bolted on the far turn, losing at least a dozen lengths, before rallying again to win Philadelphia’s biggest race going away. That was last week, this week we celebrate Super Saturday, and the biggest of the big on Saturday is the 93rd running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The roll call of winners of the Jockey Club Gold Cup reads like a who’s who of American thoroughbreds, including the magnificent Kelso who won the race five consecutive years in the early 60’s. Looking at only the list of greats who actually won the Jockey Club Gold Cup falls a little short of telling the race’s full story, however. For of all of the great performances that can be found in this race, it was in a runner-up finish that remains my favorite.

Seattle Slew was a winner. In 17 races, he won 14 times. The Slew won racing’s greatest achievement, the Triple Crown. He also won the hearts of millions of devoted fans. These w
ins are not the topic of the day, but rather one of his losses. Seattle Slew’s performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup displayed everything you could ever ask of a racehorse. I was lucky enough to be in the stands at Belmont Park that October day and I will forever remember the greatest loss there ever was.

In the fall of 197
8, Seattle Slew vindicated his shocking upset loss to Dr. Patches at the Meadowlands by proving that he was once again the best horse in the world with his easy wins in the Marlboro Cup and the Woodward Stakes over future Hall of Fame horses. In the Marlboro, Slew maintained an easy lead over the reigning Triple Crown champion, Affirmed, the entire race. The great 3-year-old simply could not put a dent into Seattle Slew’s working margin. Slew accelerated in the stretch to win by three lengths in the first ever match-up of Triple Crown winners. Final time was a great 1:45 and 4. In the 1 ¼ mile Woodward, it was Exceller’s chance to watch Seattle Slew’s tail. Slew rolled that day as he repelled Exceller’s advances with ease in tallying by four lengths.

It was on to the Jockey Club and there were some changes in store for Slew. This time both Affirmed and Exceller would challenge him and at a distance, 1 ½ miles, that both horses had proven to excel (no pun intended). To make things even more difficult, Harbor View Farm entered a rabbit into the mix. A decent handicap horse named Life’s Hope, who in the JCGC would run as fast as he could for as far as he could, was entered only to bolster the chances of their big horse, Affirmed. If you thought things were stacked against Seattle Slew before the race, it would only get worse. First Slew broke through the starting gate expending precious energy. Then one of the strangest things that I have ever seen in a big race happened. Affirmed broke like a shot and was right in the middle of what could only be called a suicidal speed dual (It was explained after the race that Affirmed‘s saddle slipped and Steve Cauthen had lost control of the great 3-year-old). Seattle Slew had to not only deal with the rabbit, but also the horse that the rabbit was designed to help. Fractions of :22 and 3, :45 and 1, and 1:09 and 2 were amazingly carved out of the Belmont dirt. Remember this was a 1 ½ mile test of endurance. Almost immediately the other three horses, including Exceller were 20 or more lengths behind. First Life’s Hope fell away and then Affirmed soon followed. Slew had sent his rivals on the front packing. But how could he possibly survive this blistering pace himself?

He couldn’t. Exceller, with Bill Shoemaker aboard was gobbling up chunks of ground on the rail at an alarming rate. It looked like he could call his own margin of victory over the tiring Slew. But then something happened. Seattle Slew, the champion that he was, fought back. It still gives me goose bumps to think about. Seattle Slew and Angel Cordero were coming back at him…Wow! Exceller, who had taken almost a full length lead was now desperate to hold of the valiant Slew. The wire came too soon and Exceller had held on to win by a nose.

In defeat, I believe Seattle Slew had run his greatest race. He would have only one more start after that in winning the Stuyvesant Stakes in easy fashion. But it was the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup where you showed us all what you really had, thank you Seattle Slew, for running the greatest loss there ever was.

Visit TVG to find out how you can qualify for the $500,000 Champions' Challenge by picking a winner in at least one Breeders' Cup prep race.



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Older Comments about What a Jockey Club Gold Cup it Was...

The Slew crew were nuts....Recall when Slew O'Gold needed bute in the inaugural BC Classic. The ones who had screamed the most about its use, overloaded the poor guy and he was sick from the high dose, all to get him to that race. It was obvious mid srtretch that he had nothing in the tank anyway. Hypocrites who rad too many of thier wone press clippings
What an amazing race! Exceller may have won it, but Seattle Slew certainly did not make it easy. I wish we saw races like this on a frequent basis still.
There’s a little more to the story. I first dug into the story about the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup when Zenyatta lost to Blame last year in the BCC10. Several stories compared that race to the 1978 JCGC. One account I read said Karen Taylor exclaimed: “I cried not because he lost, but because he tried so hard!" Andy Beyer, who had often dissed Slew, finally saw in the loss his true greatness in his effort in this race. His comment has been related several ways, but the one that I like was "Exceller may have won the race, but Slew won the debate!" (He made a similar comment just after the BCC10 about Zenyatta.) What makes this story even more remarkable is Slew had taken ill in January of that year. At one point, it was feared he might die. He did recover and a few months later, he won a couple of allowances before going on a tear beating Affirmed and he also beat Exceller in the Woodward a few weeks earlier. A race that started as another match up of the two TC winners and the race strategy that had been set up for that scenario got turned on its head. The drama, the players, the history of that era just make that race so special. It also highlights something about the commitment owners had to actually running their horses. Here was Seattle Slew, 1977 winner of the Triple Crown, being allowed to continue his career into his 4yo year! When he became ill, it would certainly have been understood had they chosen to retire him then. That they brought him back is truly a remarkable part of the story. He was Champion Older Male that year!
best 1 1/2 race ever ran....including Big Red's Belmont and Affirmed and Alydar's Belmont....this race was better -- 1 1/2 on a horrid track with those blistering fracions Big Red would have been gasping for air
They said it about Zenyatta - it's much more fitting in this case - Un-Be-Lieve-Able!
Wow, I got so excited watching this race! I've read about it so many times but that just blew my mind...makes me question my whole idea on who was the greatest. Incredible performance by Slew...actually very moving, just amazing.
Thank you for the link, Matt ... tragic.
What great race Exceller and Affirmed. It is important to remember what happened to Exceller years later in 1997. http://www.excellerfund.org/story-of-exceller.html
That race brings up many memories....seeing Exceller looking like an easy winner and then holding off Slew as he came on....that was quite a race Brian

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