MIDWAY, Ky. - Seattle Slew is swaybacked now. He moves stiffly and slow in the afternoon breeze, befitting his age, his arthritis and his regal bearing.
The greatest racehorse still
breathing is 23 years old, and no longer in much of a hurry. His days are devoted to leisure, to posing for photographs, and to interaction with agreeable females.
''He's got a pretty good life,'' said Angel Cordero Jr., the retired jockey. ''I told Seattle Slew I was jealous of him.''
This was Tuesday morning at Three Chimneys Farm. Cordero flew in from New York to observe the 20th anniversary of Slew's Triple Crown season. Cordero's trip coincided with the Kentucky Derby, but Churchill Downs was not on his itinerary this week. He came to see a certain chocolate horse, and to mount him again for a thrilling ride into the mist of memory.
''I rode a lot of horses,'' Cordero said, ''and he was the best by far. He is my hero as a horse. If I had been a millionaire, I would have given a million dollars just to ride him around.''
Seattle Slew had the misfortune to follow the peerless Secretariat as America's ranking superhorse. Then, the difficulty of his Triple Crown triumph was diminished when Affirmed also swept the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in 1978.
Yet the tests of time have served to illuminate his equine excellence. Affirmed was racing's last Triple Crown winner, and Seattle Slew remains the only horse to complete the three-race series with an undefeated record intact. In 17 career starts, he would eventually lose three races but very little of his luster.
''Any good horse, a racehorse, show jumper or standardbred, has the attitude that they are the star, they are the best,'' said Wes Lanter, stallion manager for Three Chimneys. ''And when you look 'em in the eye, they look back at you and back you down. When you come in this barn, you are surrounded by horses with that quality. Seattle Slew has it.''
Horsemen are quick to perceive human traits in animal behavior. (Wealth enables them to be seen as eccentric rather than insane.) Yet when Angel Cordero completed the 103rd Kentucky Derby, he was convinced Seattle Slew was trying to communicate with him.
Cordero's mount that afternoon was For The Moment, a speed horse that would lead the Derby at length before fading at the quarter pole.
''I was on the lead, and he (Slew) came after me,'' Cordero recalled. ''He was looking at me. I was running head-to-head with him, and he was giving me different looks, like he was trying to intimidate me.''
Then he went by with a burst, pulling away en route to the wire. The time (2:02 1/5) was nearly three seconds slower than Secretariat's record, but Seattle Slew trip involved far more traffic. Louisville writer Mike Barry, who missed only four Derbies between 1922 and 1991, called Seattle Slew ''the most deserving winner'' in the race's history.
''He had more speed than any horse I've seen,'' said Karen Taylor, who paid $17,500 for Seattle Slew as a yearling. ''He had speed and power and heart ... We fell in love with the right horse.''
A great horse gets inside of its owners, but Seattle Slew had the same effect on the hired hands. When he was moved from Spendthrift Farm to Three Chimneys, in 1985, groom Tom Wade wanted to go along.
''If you get on the van with that horse,'' Wade was told, ''you don't have a job here.''
When Seattle Slew arrived at Three Chimneys, Tom Wade was part of the package deal.
''He's family,'' Wade said Tuesday. ''Not only to me, but to my family. We've put a lot of time and effort in, and it's a great feeling to be around a horse that's a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I could never walk away from it.''
Before Wade led Seattle Slew out of his barn Tuesday afternoon, Lexington Mayor Pam Miller read a proclamation. Steve Cauthen, himself a Triple Crown winner, hoisted his daughter on his shoulders for a better view. The great horse ate an apple, and his audience was awed.
Cordero, who rode three Derby winners during his career, did not replace Jean Cruguet as Slew's rider until after the Triple Crown. Though he missed the colt's most meaningful races, Cordero still revels in their relationship.
''When they needed a rider, I used God as my agent,'' he said. ''And I finally got on the horse.''