"He fell all over the place at the break," jockey Jean Cruguet acknowledged, but the 103d Kentucky Derby was no Waterloo for Seattle Slew.
The undefeated colt, sent off at 1 to 2 by a Churchill Downs crowd of 124,038, overcame the poor start from the gate and, at the finish Mickey and Karen Taylor's dark bay son of Bold Reasoning was 1 3/4 lengths in front of Run Dusty Run, with Sanhedrin third, a neck behind the runner-up.
The victory was Slew's seventh. While the margin was the smallest of his career, the performance did more to establish his quality than all his earlier romps combined.
Seattle Slew was under pressure nearly every step of the way during this mile-and-a-quarter journey. He swerved slightly under Cruguet coming out of Post No. 4 and appeared in grave danger of losing his favorable inside position in the long run to the clubhouse turn.
But Cruguet and Slew regrouped beautifully. The winner was on For The Moment's flank by the time they hit the turn. For The Moment continued to hold a narrow lead down the backstretch and to the top of the stretch, at which point Seattle Slew finally went to the front. Always, before today, he had taken command early, and easily.
No sonner did Slew put For The Moment out of the moment than Run Dusty Run attacked from the outside. Sanhedrin also closed stoutly through the late stretch, but Slew won with something in reserve.
He had felt Cruguet's whip for the first time since the Champagne Mile last summer, and responded in the style of champion.
Slew paid $3 straight after completing the 10 furlongs of fast track in 2:02 1/5. The fractions were :23, :45 4/5, 1:10 3/5 and 1:36.
"I think my horse can run the final quarter-mile in .23 and change, if he has to," Billy Turner had said. The young trainer was wrong, Slew's final quarter was a slow .26 1/5, but the 14 rivals had been sapped of much of their energy by the top of the stretch, through a 1:36 mile.
A record $1,059.207 was bet to win on the favorite, some $10,000 more than was sent in on Honest Pleasure when that colt finished second, at 2 to 5, to Bold Forbes here last spring. The $3,655.225 bet on today's Derby also is a record.
Seattle Slew joins Majestic Prince (1969), Morvich (1922) as the only defeated 3-year-olds to advance through the Derby undefeated. The next target is the Preakness Stakes, second event in the Triple Crown series, May 21 at Pimlico.
"He fell all over the place at the break," Cruguet verified. "He didn't break too fast, either, and it was pretty tight going up between horses, but when you have a lot of horse and speed enough, it's easy.
"I hit him turning for home, just with the flat part of the stick, and not hard, and he responded."
"The Triple Crown?"
"I guarantee he'll win the next time," the French jockey replied.
Seattle Slew broke out profusely in sweat while being saddled in the paddock. So did For The Moment, the third choice.
Run Dusty Run was second in the wagering, at slightly less than 6 to 1.
"The band, the big crowd, the excitement, it all got to him," Turner acknowledged. "Going up the backstretch, I thought he wasn't going to get anything. He wasn't doing anything. Then, by the middle of the Stretch turn, when he got clear, he got to running and I was confident he would win, once he was clear."
Angel Cordero, who scored aboard Bold Forbes last year, said, "It was a new ball game today, once Seattle Slew broke slow. Down the backside, my horse and the winner were going easy. We had similar holds, but past the five-sixteenths I could feel my horse starting to slow down, as Seattle Slew started to pick it up.
"We just went head-and-head with the best 3-year-old in America, as far as we could," Cordero added.
The start was the key to the Derby, Seattle Slew could have lost his bid right there or, as Bill Shoemaker (rider of fourth-place Get The Axe), said later: "Cruguet was lucky he got some from after that bad start. If he hadn't, he might have run right up over the top of horses."
Cruguet wove his way through Sir Sir, Flag Officer, Affiliate and Run Dusty Run to regain a challenging position quickly in the long run to the turn. He actually headed For The Moment briefly, for the lead, going under the wire the first time, only to be taken back slightly by his jockey around the turn.
"I thought Seattle Slew helped make his own hole," Turner observed, "I also thought Jean showed great cool, after what happened. That's what it takes in a jockey to win a Derby: coolness."
There will be detractors of Slew's performance. They will point to that final quarter of :26 1/5, the final half-mile in a terribly slow :51 3/5. Bold Forbes set the pace and won in 2:01 3/5 in 1976, after six furlongs in 1:10 2/3, over what was not a faster surface.
"But I don't think any of us had the excuses Seattle Slew had today," Darrell McHargue observed so accurately after climbing down from Run Dusty Run. "My horse is a bull: a true fighter, I thought I had Seattle Slew at the head of the stretch. But I didn't. None of us did."
The Taylors earned $214,700 from the $267,200 purse, which was second only to the $274,000 gross in 1974. Today's crowd was the fourth largest in Derby history, far off the 163,628 turnout of 1974.
Today's total mutuel handle of $8,811,486 also was a record, topping last year's $8,435,463.