Slew o’ Gold
Like the Calumet Farm runner who finished second to Affirmed in all three legs of the 1978 Triple Crown, Slew o’ Gold had a second-place finish that overshadowed an impressive list of accomplishments during a career in which he won 12 of 21 starts and earned $3,533,534.
Slew o’ Gold, in many ways, played a key role in the growth and success of the Breeders’ Cup. He was a central figure in the race that erased any doubts about the viability of the series and 38 years later remains one of its greatest moments.
Yet that appropriately named Breeders’ Cup Classic of 1984 was a duel in which Slew o’ Gold made the race famous, but had to settle for runner-up honors as he lost to 31-to-1 longshot Wild Again after an epic three-horse stretch battle in which he was moved up from third to second via disqualification.
That loss in his final start ultimately cost Slew o’ Gold Horse of the Year honors and a lofty spot in racing history, but did not temper the belief in those closest to him that he was an exceptional talent.
“He was by far the best horse I’ve ever been around,” John Hertler, who trained Slew o’ Gold during the colt’s 1984 campaign, said in a 2014 interview. “He was such a magnificent and majestic looking horse. He was so big and handsome, people were always stopping by the barn to see him.”
There was little doubt that Slew o’ Gold was bred for greatness. He was a son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew out of the Buckpasser mare Alluvial, whose previous offspring included 1979 Belmont Stakes winner Coastal.
Bred by Claiborne Farm, he was owned by Dr. Jim and Sally Hill and Mickey and Karen Taylor – the two couples that also owned Seattle Slew – and raced under the banner of Equusequity Stable.
He was originally trained by Sid Watters and started his career late in his 2-year-old season. Given his breeding, it was little surprise that Slew o’ Gold was sent off as a 3-to-5 favorite in that Oct. 15, 1982, race at Aqueduct. He had to work harder than his odds indicated but Slew o’ Gold managed to win by a neck. He then captured an allowance race by 1 ¾ lengths but disappointed in the Grade 1 Remsen Stakes, finishing sixth, 11 3/4 lengths behind the victorious Pax in Bello.
That disappointing loss capped his 2-year-old campaign, and 1983 started with a third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes and a troubled second in the Tampa Bay Derby.
A resounding 7 ¾-length win in an allowance race at Aqueduct under jockey Angel Cordero Jr. got Slew o’ Gold back on the winning track and he followed that up with a neck victory in a division of the Wood Memorial Stakes, the race his sire used as a final prep for the Kentucky Derby.
That formula didn’t work as well for Slew o’ Gold as he finished fourth behind Sunny’s Halo in the run for the roses. The sting of that setback didn’t last for long as he skipped the Preakness and rebounded to post a 12-length romp in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park.
That lopsided win set the stage for Slew o’ Gold to be sent off as the 5-to-2 favorite in the Belmont Stakes, but he finished second to Caveat.
In a year with three separate Triple Crown race winners, the race for the 3-year-old championship was up for grabs and it was Slew o’ Gold who seized the opportunity. After finishing sixth in the Haskell Invitational Stakes, he was second in the Travers Stakes and then closed out the year against older horses with Grade 1 wins in the Woodward Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup and a second in the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap.
An Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-old of 1983 was Slew o’ Gold’s reward for his stellar late-season surge, and positioned him nicely for a memorable and monumental year for racing.
The Breeders’ Cup was launched in 1984 and the hope was that stars like John Henry and Slew o’ Gold would be there at Hollywood Park to make it a success.
Turned over to Hertler, Slew o’ Gold got off to a late start in 1984, opening the year with an allowance win on July 2. Cordero then guided him to four straight Grade 1 wins, taking the Whitney and then becoming the only horse to sweep the New York Racing Association’s Fall Championship Series of the Woodward, Marlboro Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
When an injury prevented John Henry from racing in the Breeders’ Cup, the Classic became the vehicle that could cap an undefeated season and crown Slew o’ Gold as Horse of the Year. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Slew o’ Gold won by 9 ¾ lengths as a 1-to-10 favorite and seemed certain to cap his career with a win in the inaugural $3 million Breeders’ Cup Classic – except that Hertler was battling a hoof problem with the champion.
Three weeks after his win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Slew o’ Gold was sent off as the 3-to-5 favorite in the 1 ¼-mile Classic and seemed poised to add a fifth straight Grade 1 win to his résumé.
Fate had different plans.
Positioned off a three-way speed duel, Slew o’ Gold made his move on the backstretch and drew alongside the front-running Wild Again midway on the final turn. A few months earlier in New York, that move would have propelled Slew o’ Gold to an easy victory, but in California, the ailing hoof and a relatively short but demanding campaign caught up with him.
As hard as Slew o’ Gold ran, he couldn’t get past Wild Again. In midstretch, the duo was joined from the outside by Preakness winner Gate Dancer and they raced in unison to the finish line. Sandwiched between his two rivals, under fierce urging from Cordero, Slew o’ Gold kept battling until the final strides when Gate Dancer came in and squeezed him.
At the finish line, it was Wild Again by a head over Gate Dancer with Slew o’ Gold a half-length back in third.
A disqualification that moved Slew o’ Gold up to second and dropped Gate Dancer to third provided little solace for a race that would have made Slew o’ Gold the biggest star of all on racing’s biggest day ever.
“It’s too bad to end this way, but people who saw him in New York know how good he is, how much better he is than these horses,” Cordero said after the race to the New York Times.
While running in the Breeders’ Cup was a sporting gesture, the defeat had its consequences in the year-end voting for champions. Though Slew o’ Gold was named champion older male, Horse of the Year honors went to John Henry, who had six stakes wins, four of them in Grade 1 races.
“When I heard the emcee at the Eclipse dinner announce Horse of the Year by saying, ‘and like fine wine … ,’ I knew John Henry was Horse of the Year, but it was still shocking to me. Slew o’ Gold had a year that was almost perfect,” Hertler said.
As it turned out, neither Slew o’ Gold nor John Henry raced again. They were the biggest stars of 1984 and both were later enshrined in the sport’s Hall of Fame. But in terms of leaving behind a legacy, it is John Henry who is more easily recalled – even if it was Slew o’ Gold who helped make the Breeders’ Cup an institution.
Note: This story was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.
- He entered the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1992
- In BloodHorse magazine’s poll of the top thoroughbreds of the 20th Century, Slew o’ Gold finished 58th.
- Since 1983-84, Slew o’ Gold is one of six horses to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup in back-to-back years.
- Among the Grade 1 winners sired by Slew o’ Gold were Awe Inspiring, Dramatic Gold, Gorgeous, Thirty Six Red and Tactile.