Seattle Slew became lost in the dense early-morning fog today at Belmont Park. When, eventually, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero reappeared, the clockers weren't quite sure of his time for the mile workout: 1:382/5 or 1:383/5.
In the fog, apparently, time stands still.
Billy Turner, the young trainer, caught his colt in thirty-eight and two and confessed he was "very pleased. I was looking for about 39."
A few critics were not happy with the drill. They were looking for 1:35 and change and didn't get it, fog or no fog.But few of the criitcs will be willing to pick against the most lucrative holding of Wooden Horse Investments Inc. On Saturday, June 11, when Seattle Slew bids to become the first undefeated of 10 Triple Crown winners by capturing the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes.
Iron Constitution, Run Dusty Run and Spirtt Level are the only long-range rivals for the favorite.
To find out how Seattle Slew really is doing these days don't ask Turner or the few critics who remain. Barn 54 may be listed as Seattle Slew's residence in the Belmont backstretch but "headquarters" is Esposito's, a small oasis immediately across the road from the world's most expensive horse colony.
John. Jr., and Ralph are the brothers behind Esposito's bar. Occupancy is restricted to the first 50 persons through the tilting screend door. It is not to be mistaken for the Ritz but it is Turner's hangout, and Billy Turner is doing more to popularize the place than Alfred Vanderbilt or Robin Smith ever could.
"Billy's been coming in here 21 years, to be exact," boasted John Esposito, who immediately reaches back and brings forth a photograph of Turner riding in a steeplechase race. Turner is upright on his mount, in the lead. Joe Aitcheson, the nation's best jump jockey, is in the process of falling off his horse.
"There's not too much steeplechase left these days but the crowd still stick together," John Esposito said. "They remember their old hunts. The flats had the Copacabana. For the jumps, this is their meeting place, and Billy's coming here goes back to his apprenticeship days with Burley Cocks. He's a tall boy but he could always get down low on a jumper. He was a good rider."
As a rider, Turner is threatening to become a great trainer.
"Once a year Billy takes me into his barn and gives me a tour of his young stock," John Esposito volunteered. "Last June he took me over and showed me the dark bay.
"'What do you think of that one?'" he asked me.
"'It looks like Ben Jones' barn, with all those big Bull Leas,' I told him. Seattle Slew, as a 2-year-old who hadn't started, already looks like a 3-year-old."
When Seattle Slew won his first start at Belmont on Sept. 20, paying $7.20 straight for every $2 invested, there was not a dry throat in Espositio's. When, less than a month later, the son of Bold Reasoning captured the Champagne Mile, the most memorable toasts were not in the Trustee's Room at Belmont, but in the little bar on Plainfield Ave.
The Espositos now compose poems and send flowered horseshoes to Turner's barn after every major success. Everything, pardon the expression, has been coming up roses since Churchill Downs on May 7.
All of which, despite their affection for Turner and Seattle Slew, doesn't detract from John Esposito's professional appraisal of his favorite race horses.
"This is a Mom-and Pop operation. We've been here for 40 years," Esposito said. "I've seen a lot of the great ones. I remember the old Vanderbilt Chute. That's the Vanderbilt, not the Widener Chute.
"Right now I'd say Seattle Slew belongs among the top 15 3-year-olds of all time. Citation is first, Count Fleet second, Native Dancer third, Secretariat fourth, with Whirlaway somewhere in the top eight.
"Tom move up, Seattle Slew must win the Belmont, with its added distance and the prestige factor. That would put him in the top five."
Will Seattle Slew complete the sweep of the Triple Crown? "He'll win it by 10," Esposito replied. "He'll be second off Secretariat's track record, in 2:25."
Finally, any advice for Turner?
"There is an old race-track proverb," Esposito responded, casting an eye in the direction of Seattle Slew's stall far across the road. "It says you do nothing by change your underwear, once you've found the secret."
Esposito is confident Turner knows the secret of Seattle Slew.
Today's 1:38-plus ile workout was acceptable.
Have one on us.