By John Manley
In the weeks leading up to the 1977 Belmont Stakes, trainer Billy Turner’s biggest problem was finding someone who could keep Seattle Slew from running off during his morning gallops. Regular exercise rider Mike Kennedy was in something of a pickle, as the mutuel clerks at Belmont were on strike and walking a picket line outside the stable gate.
The problem for Kennedy, a Waterford native, was that after finishing his morning duties on the backside, he worked a window in the grandstand.
“It wasn’t a problem until after the Preakness, because we weren’t in New York until then,” Kennedy, now 64, said recently from his Long Island home.
But upon returning to Belmont, Kennedy honored the picket line, as the Slew Crew hoped that the walkout would be settled expeditiously.
“Well, the first day, Slew took off with [jockey Jean] Cruguet and went twice around the track, three miles,” Kennedy said. “He was out of control.
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“The next day, they used some other guy and the same thing happened. Mickey Taylor [one of Slew’s owners] said to Billy, ‘Get Mike in here.’ ”
A plan was hatched whereby Kennedy showed up at the house of late trainer Sally Bailie, who lived in Floral Park, right outside Belmont’s distant perimeter. Kennedy passed through a gate, where he was met by Turner, and then stuffed himself into the trunk of Turner’s car. The morning’s adventures had just begun.
“He [Slew] must have spent two hours messing with the pony that day,” Kennedy said. “I couldn’t gallop him, there’s no way I could have held him. Then, people were asking me if the strike had been settled. I said that it had. I had to say something. Well, luckily for me, they did settle, at noon that day.”
Seattle Slew has been the focus of much media attention over the last month. He was the last living Triple Crown winner when he died in early May at Hill ‘N’ Dale Farm in Kentucky. This year is also the 25th anniversary of his Belmont victory, in which he became the first horse to win the Crown while still undefeated.
The Slew Crew (owners Mickey and Karen Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill) became much celebrated, having plucked Slew out of a Kentucky yearling sale for $17,500. Turner and Cruguet were front and center, and groom John Polston held Slew for all the winner’s circle photos. But Mike Kennedy, perhaps the most essential ingredient in Slew’s training, went largely unknown to the public. He wasn’t known to anybody inside racing circles during his Waterford youth.
“My father was a tailor,” Kennedy said. “We lived beside a guy with an old horse who worked for the city, filling potholes. He would turn the horse out for the summers nearby, where the countryside began, and he would throw me up on the horse. That’s where I got the urge.”
Paddy Prendergast took Kennedy under his wing, with the budding jockey completing his apprenticeship in England. He eventually returned to Ireland, riding on both the flat and over fences. His last year was spent booting home winners for Vincent O’Brien, who numbered Raymond Guest among his clients. Guest took a shine to Kennedy, who had retired from race riding, and urged him to consider a position helping to break his stock in Virginia. Kennedy came to the U.S. in 1962 and soon thereafter met up with Frank Whiteley, for whom he broke Tom Rolfe.
Too tough to handle
In 1976, Kennedy was in the employ of the largely unheralded Turner when Seattle Slew arrived. Reports from Turner’s wife, who broke the colt on the farm, were that he had grown too tough for her to handle. He caught Kennedy’s eye before ever being asked to run.
“He was a big, gangly horse, all angles,” Kennedy said. “But there was something about him that made you look twice. He had tremendous bone, which is something that Irish people, especially, would notice. He had a way about him, a good way of going, and a powerful shoulder. It was just a matter of when the rear would catch up to the front.”
That turned out to be sooner rather than later.
“The first time we breezed him, he was supposed to go three-eighths [of a mile] in 39 [seconds] with a filly that had won, but he just took off and opened up on her,” Kennedy said. “He’d gone five-eighths before I could pull him up. That was the last time he breezed in company. Billy stopped on him for a little while and said, ‘Maybe we’d better have another look.’ ”
As someone who has an appreciation for the opportunities afforded by backing one’s opinion through the pari-mutuels, Kennedy saw a pot of gold at the end of his rainbow after one morning workout with the then-unraced Slew, shortly before the stable was to ship to Saratoga, where the 2-year-old was to debut.
“One morning, I worked him five-eighths at Belmont and he went in 1:01 on one lead, just floating,” Kennedy said. “That was his first really impressive work to me.”
But the best-laid plans were skewered when Slew got cast in his stall one night upstate and bruised a hock. His debut was delayed until September at Belmont, but by then the word was out. The din grew as the colt went undefeated in three starts at two, a streak that continued in three more starts before the Kentucky Derby, which included setting a track record for seven furlongs at Hialeah.
After the Triple Crown, Slew met defeat for the first time at Hollywood Park in July, where he was trounced by J.O. Tobin. The owners were roundly criticized for sending the colt west, when Turner had other plans for him, but Kennedy absolves them of any blame, although he declined to suggest who was culpable.
“He shouldn’t have gone to California,” Kennedy said. “But I’m tired of the owners getting the rap for it. It wasn’t their fault.”
Turner and the owners parted ways soon thereafter, but Kennedy stayed on board.
“When they let Billy go, they asked me if I’d come with the horse,” Kennedy said. “So I was working for the Hills and Taylors. Even after they fired Billy, he said to Mickey Taylor, ‘If you have any problems with the horse, Mike knows what to do.’ It was a classy move.”
With Doug Peterson as his new trainer, Seattle Slew wasn’t seen under silks until the summer of his 4-year-old season, having narrowly escaped a near-fatal infection during the winter in Florida. Cruguet was dumped off the bandwagon when he and Slew were narrowly defeated at the Meadowlands by Dr. Patches, ridden by Angel Cordero, Jr.
Cordero was enlisted to ride Slew in the Woodward, in which they were matched against Affirmed in the first-ever meeting of Triple Crown winners. Slew received little resistance from his younger rival and then ran his career finale in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which he was defeated by Exceller.
“He probably got more credit for that race in defeat than any other race,” Kennedy said. “He broke through the gate, then Cordero lost his stirrup going into the first turn. He went three-quarters in 1:09.1. It was crazy. Even the rabbit that was in there couldn’t keep up with him.”
Despite the seemingly suicidal early fractions, Seattle Slew battled back gamely when passed by Exceller in the stretch of the mile and a half duel. He was gaining on his rival when the wire came up a few strides too soon.
“He was the toughest horse I’ve ever been on in my life,” Kennedy said. “He’d run right over them if they ever got in the way. Hell, he’d run on broken bottles. It’s unbelievable how much heart and spirit he had.”
As much heart and spirit as Mike Kennedy has, his reflexes began to slow several years ago and he no longer gallops in the morning, although he does pony horses. And he retired from the windows two years ago. But come Belmont Stakes day, Kennedy will be in the Belmont Park grandstand with the Hills and Taylors. When the field rounds the turn and aims for the wire down the stretch, Seattle Slew will still be way in front in Mike Kennedy’s eyes.