June 13, 1977

Every Other Colt Met His Match

 

On a mid-August afternoon in 1954 Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who trained Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935), was seated in a camp chair not far from the shore of Lake Desolation, his summer retreat near Saratoga in upstate New York. Nashua was four years old at the time, Bold Ruler two and Mr. Fitz 80. A crutch rested on his legs, his bow tie was sprightly and his blue eyes sparkled. When asked how many of the 1,001 ways to lose a horse race he could name, Fitzsimmons leaned forward and said, "Probably all of them. And maybe alphabetically, too. Acting up in the gate is one, altering course another and away poorly a third. Then it gets real good—blinkers slipped, blew the turn, blocked, bore in, bore out, bothered, bumped. In the old days we had boy dropped battery. I have had a horse hit by lightning when he was on the lead, and I read about one that jumped the inner rail and drowned in an infield lake. But there really are only 1,000 excuses a good trainer can use. The 1,001st, a trainer never admits to. That is when someone else comes down the pike with a better horse and just plain beats you."

Seattle Slew's owners have not had to resort to excuses so far. And it is not likely that they will have to this Saturday, for the heavy odds are that Slew will become the only classic colt in the 102 years the events have been contested to go unbeaten in the first 18 months of his racing career. Six of the nine previous Triple Crown winners—Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Count Fleet, Assault and Secretariat—lost their first start. War Admiral was beaten in his third, Whirlaway in his second and Citation in his fifth. It seldom takes long.

Sir Barton lost his first six races, finally breaking his maiden in the Kentucky Derby. Omaha ran for three years, two in this country and one in England, and never was able to win three straight in one season. He took the Derby and Preakness, lost the Withers, then won the Belmont. Only two Triple Crown winners got through their 3-year-old seasons without a loss: War Admiral with eight victories and Count Fleet with six. Overall, the Triple Crown winners finished first in only 59% of their lifetime starts—168 of 285 races.

Of the horses considered by experts to be "great"—only Count Fleet and Citation of the Triple Crown colts are in this category—just three retired unbeaten: American Eclipse (1818-23) in eight starts, Colin (1907-08) in 15 and Tremont (1886) in 13. So if people believe that one day soonSeattle Slew will get his comeuppance, it is understandable.

Eight years ago this week Majestic Prince came into the Belmont walking ring with a 9 for 9 record and victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He had lost 40 pounds since his win at Churchill Downs five weeks before, and his legs were sore. Reluctantly obeying the owner's orders, Trainer John Longden started the colt. Majestic Prince finished second and broke down so badly he never raced again.

Two years ago Ruffian came into the Belmont walking ring with a 10 for 10 record for her foolish match race with Foolish Pleasure. She snapped her sesamoids that afternoon and had to be destroyed.

If Slew stretches his record to nine straight in the Belmont Stakes he will be a horse for the ages, one to build dreams on. Down the road, however, stands a nightmare. That is Forego, who may force the Taylors and the Hills to use the 1,001st excuse.

 
 
 
 
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