On the off chance you haven't heard, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn's homebred California Chrome will try to make history on Saturday by winning the Belmont Stakes and becoming horse racing's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. And, living and working in one of the world's Thoroughbred meccas, that chestnut colt with the big white blaze and those four white socks is a familiar sight on the television, in newspapers, and across the Internet.
The then 28-year-old Seattle Slew with Mickey and Karen Taylor
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
All this Triple Crown talk made me think of another horse that claimed racing's biggest prize, and remains the only horse to do so undefeated prior to his victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. But Seattle Slew, who won the series of races in 1977, also made headlines as a senior horse when he underwent two major neck surgeries in the early 2000s to alleviate neurologic signs caused by wobbler syndrome. And since wobbler syndrome is a condition most commonly identified in younger horses, Seattle Slew's story is an interesting one all around. Let's take a look back, with some help from some coverage from The Horse and our sister publication The Blood-Horse.
Long before the horse's neurologic problems developed, Seattle Slew, by the stallion Bold Reasoning, was purchased at auction for $17,500 and raced for Mickey and Karen Taylor and Dr. Jim and Sally Hill. Billy Turner trained the colt to win the 1977 Triple Crown, a feat that landed the entire Slew team in the history books. The colt went on to race through the 1978 season, and ultimately earned more than $1.2 million on the track throughout his career.
Seattle Slew entered stud in 1979 at Spendthrift Farm, in Lexington, Kentucky, before moving to Three Chimneys Farm in 1985, where—in 2000—his neurologic problems surfaced and the story of his surgeries begins.
The Blood-Horse reported at the time that his handlers noticed a lack of coordination in the then 26-year-old stallion in January 2000, but he began the breeding season on schedule in mid-February, with seven of the first nine mares he covered getting in foal. The neurologic problem was treated, but Seattle Slew's fertility worsened, and on March 27, 2000, the farm announced that he would be pulled out of the breeding shed to undergo surgery. It was speculated at the time that his reduced fertility might have been associated with treatment for his neurologic problems.
Seattle Slew underwent surgery April 2, 2000, at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital. Dr. Barrie Grant (DVM, Dipl. ACVS) performed a procedure to fuse a joint between two neck vertebrae that was causing spinal cord compression due to arthritic changes. Fortunately, the surgery and the recovery went off without a hitch.
Following the surgery, fertility tests showed that the stallion's semen had returned to normal. He reentered stud for the 2001 breeding season at the age of 27.
Seattle Slew underwent his first surgery at the age of 26, and his second (seen here) at the age of 28.
Photo: Courtesy Dr. Barrie Grant
Unfortunately, in February 2002, Seattle Slew began showing neurologic signs, and was again taken out of stud duty. Radiographs and a myelogram (a special X ray of the spinal canal that can reveals cervical compression) revealed further spinal cord compression due to arthritic changes in the vertebrae.
The Horse reported at the time, "The compression is at a site other than where the anterior inter-body fusion was performed two years ago. An examination of that area showed the Bagby basket fusion around vertebrae No. 6 and 7 to be functioning properly. Seattle Slew now is troubled by compression between vertebrae No, 4 and 5 and between No. 5 and 6. A Bagby basket will be inserted around each of the two problems areas."
On March 2, 2002, at the age of 28, Seattle Slew underwent his second major neck surgery. And like the first procedure, he came through with flying colors. A full recap of the surgery with photos is available on TheHorse.com.
Seattle Slew returned to Three Chimneys four days after surgery, but moved to Hill 'n' Dale Farm, in Lexington, a few weeks later to provide the recovering senior with a quieter environment away from incoming mares.
Seattle Slew died 25 years to the day after winning the Kentucky Derby in 1977.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
A few months later on May 7, 2002—25 years to the day after winning the 1977 Kentucky Derby—Seattle Slew, the last living Triple Crown winner, died in his sleep at Hill 'n' Dale with his owners by his side.
We've been without a living Triple Crown winner since Seattle Slew's death (Affirmed, who accomplished the feat in 1978 was euthanized in 2001 due to musculoskeletal issues), and I personally think the drought has endured long enough. So as California Chrome prepares to run for history on Saturday, don't forget the last living Triple Crown winner who not only stole a nation's heart on the racetrack, but also overcame significant obstacles in his golden years.
Do you think California Chrome will win the Belmont Stakes?