Exceller, Seattle Slew Gold Cup Battle Among the Greatest Ever

I recently wrote about my favorite jaw-dropping performances, confining it to Eastern tracks. Now it’s time to start thinking about my most memorable stretch runs. This will be presented in three parts over the next couple of months. In this first column I have chosen one race to highlight, based on its dramatic content, quality of competition, and its historic impact on the sport. That race is the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. In the second column I will rank my top 12 favorite races with comments about each race. Finally, I will have a column listing the balance of my top 25 stretch runs, all the while enjoying the picks of any additional favorite races submitted by the readers. ~ Steve Haskin

Exceller, Seattle Slew Gold Cup Battle Among the Greatest Ever

By Steve Haskin


I have chosen to begin with the epic stretch duel between Seattle Slew and Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup that included Affirmed. This race, which pitted the 1977 and ’78 Triple Crown winners against each other had more drama and was more eventful than any race I can remember. And it was the first time in memory a horse the caliber of Seattle Slew, with all his victories, gained more accolades and respect in defeat. Many still regard it as the greatest losing effort ever.

October, 14, 1978 was a great time to be in New York if you were a sports fan. At Yankee Stadium the Yanks were defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-3 in the fourth game of the World Series to tie the Series up at two games apiece. At Belmont Park that afternoon racing fans got to witness the rematch between Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed in The Jockey Club Gold Cup.

For most of the year everyone was looking forward to Affirmed and Alydar continuing their epic rivalry through the fall, but when Alydar beat Affirmed by disqualification in a controversial Travers Stakes before sustaining an injury that sidelined him for the year all thoughts turned to Affirmed facing the previous year’s Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, who was still on the comeback trail after suffering a life-threatening illness at Hialeah that January.

Backing up a bit, following the 1977 Triple Crown Slew had suffered a bad defeat in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park only three weeks after the Belmont Stakes despite trainer Billy Turner vehemently protesting his running back that soon and traveling cross country. He had already removed Slew’s shoes and planned on giving him some time off.

Slew did not run again that year after the Swaps debacle. The Slew team of Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill started to come apart at the seams, following a lawsuit and the dissolving of the partnership, and the subsequent firing of Billy Turner. The Hills and Taylors considered retiring Slew after his illness, especially having syndicated him for $12 million, double the then record syndication price of Secretariat. But they decided to give him another year of racing to confirm the greatness he showed at 2 and through the Triple Crown.

Seattle Slew finally returned to the races in ’78 and following two easy allowance sprint victories for new trainer Doug Peterson Slew was entered in the 1 1/8-mile Paterson Handicap at the Meadowlands and was beaten a neck by Dr. Patches, the eventual Vosburgh and Meadowlands Cup winner who would be named 1978 Sprint champion. When jockey Jean Cruguet criticized his owners and trainer for running Slew in that spot, carrying 128 pounds, giving 14 pounds to Dr. Patches, and having to break from the far outside 10 post, he like Turner was fired by the Taylors and Hills. It was three years earlier that the “Slew Crew” pulled off the steal of the century when they bought Seattle Slew as a yearling for a mere $17,500 and became the darlings of the sport during the colt’s historic Triple Crown run. But now their feel-good story was starting to unravel.

With Angel Cordero named to replace Cruguet it was time for the Marlboro Cup and the first ever meeting between Triple Crown winners. No one was quite sure what to expect from Slew against Affirmed and the always tough 3-year-old Nasty and Bold. Was this the same brilliant horse who had become the first undefeated Triple Crown winner in history?

Here was Seattle Slew, eight months after almost dying, going into his historic meeting with Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup, which was run at 1 1/8 miles around one turn back then. Affirmed, despite a narrow score and desperate finish in the Jim Dandy and being disqualified in the Travers, was made the 1-2 favorite with Seattle Slew at 2-1. It was the only time Slew was not the favorite and the first time in 10 starts he was not odds-on. Steve Cauthen, who nearly got Affirmed beat in the Jim Dandy Stakes and then had to miss the Travers with a leg injury, allowed Seattle Slew to open a three-length lead early through a leisurely :47 half. In all essence the race was over at that point if Seattle Slew was even close to the same horse he was the previous year when was running :44 and :45 and change half-miles. Slew just kept going, coming home his final five-eighths in a torrid 58 4/5, and although Affirmed closed just as fast he was unable to overcome that three-length advantage. Seattle Slew stopped the teletimer in 1:45 4/5, which equaled the second fastest nine furlongs ever run at Belmont. Only Secretariat ran faster and only Forego ran as fast. It looked like Slew was not only back but better than ever.

Unlike Affirmed, who waited for the mile and a half Jockey Club Gold Cup, Seattle Slew came right back two weeks later (bounce you say?) in the mile and a quarter Woodward Stakes. Here he had to face the international sensation Exceller, winner of Grade/Group I races in France, England, Canada, and the United States. In the U.S. Exceller showed his versatility that year by winning three consecutive Grade 1 stakes, two on the grass and the Hollywood Gold Cup on dirt, in which he rallied from 16 lengths back to win in a sprightly 1:59 1/5 for the mile and a quarter, defeating the top-class multiple stakes winner Text and Vigors, winner of that year’s Santa Anita and San Antonio Handicaps.

In the Woodward, once again, Seattle Slew controlled the pace right from the start and kept pouring it on, defeating Exceller by four lengths in 2:00 flat, one-fifth off Forego’s track record.

That set the stage for the big rematch between Slew and Affirmed, with Exceller back for another try, as his trainer Charlie Whittingham realized circumstances would be much more in his favor this time than in the Woodward.

There was no way trainer Laz Barrera was going to let a repeat of the Marlboro Cup happen again. As fast as Affirmed was out of the gate he did not have Seattle Slew’s speed. On his own his only chance of beating Slew was to look him in the eye early and try to outgame him as he had done so many times against Alydar. But a battle of that magnitude could set it up for the late-running Exceller or even the distance-loving Great Contractor, an inconsistent horse who on his two best days was able to defeat Forego by 11 lengths while getting 25 pounds in the mile and a half Brooklyn Handicap and was beaten two necks in the Belmont Stakes behind Bold Forbes.

So the cagey Barrera summoned help from his barn, entering a speedball sprinter named Americanized, who had never been farther than six furlongs, wanted to be on or just off the lead, and could rattle off opening half-miles in :45 and change consistently. He seemed like the perfect “rabbit” who could possibly soften Slew up before making his retreat. A week before the race, Barrera worked him a half in :45 4/5 over the deeper Belmont training track and with the dogs up.

As a security blanket, Barrera also entered Life’s Hope, who had shown some early lick on occasion, but was mostly a horse who wanted to come from off the pace. He did, however, win the mile and a quarter Amory Haskell Handicap three races back coming from just a length off the lead and earlier had won an overnight handicap going head and head the entire race. Barrera had put a lot of speed into the 5-year-old gelding, breezing him a half in :47 1/5 and then giving him a bullet five-furlong work in :58 4/5 four days before the race.

Affirmed hadn’t run in a month, so Barrera worked him a bullet five furlongs over the training track in :59 2/5 and followed that up with two strong mile works, the last one a week out in 1:39 3/5 over the training track.

Seattle Slew, meanwhile, was coming back once again in only two weeks, which actually was fairly normal back then, so Peterson only gave him one half-mile blowout two days before the race and Slew showed he was as sharp as ever working in a bullet :46 3/5. Exceller worked his half that same morning in :47 flat, which followed a mile work over the training track in 1:43 2/5 five days earlier and only a week after his second to Slew in the Woodward.

So everyone was razor sharp going into the Gold Cup. Seven were entered, but Barrera wound up scratching Americanized, leaving a lot of the dirty work to Life’s Hope. The strategy was that Affirmed, breaking from post 2 just outside Seattle Slew, would come out running as usual, putting enough pressure on Slew. Affirmed was the kind of push-button horse who was fast out of the gate, but would allow the jockey to take a hold of him and ease him back. Once Affirmed put enough early pressure on Slew, he would back off and let Life’s Hope take over.

Sounds simple enough, but that’s where the drama began. With the track coming up sloppy, Seattle Slew broke through the gate and fortunately was grabbed right away by the assistant starter. But breaking through the gate is never a good thing and not a lot of horses win after doing so.

When the gates opened, Slew broke sharply, as did Affirmed, who went right with him eyeball to eyeball. But Barrera’s plans went awry immediately after. When Life’s Hope came charging out of post 4 and joined in the fray from the outside, Affirmed found himself the proverbial meat in the sandwich. We all knew how competitive Affirmed was from his battles with Alydar. Cauthen tried to grab hold of Affirmed, but with little success. With the three horses locked together going into the first turn, Affirmed found himself battling not only Slew on his inside, but his own stablemate just outside him, which got his competitive juices flowing. He was in the battle to stay, which obviously was not what Barrera wanted.

As they went into the first turn, they were so close together, Affirmed and Slew bumped each other, which knocked Cordero’s left foot out of the stirrups. Slew was now basically running on his own as Cordero tried to get his foot back in the irons. There was no stopping him now. So hot was the early pace they went the opening quarter in :22 3/5. Cauthen, meanwhile, was pulling back so hard on Affirmed trying to get him away from Slew and his own stablemate his saddle slipped and he found himself bouncing up and down. The saddle had slipped so far forward he was now way up on the colt’s withers at the base of his neck and had lost all control of the horse.

By now the three had opened some 25 lengths on Exceller and had scorched a half-mile in an excruciating :45 1/5, which was insane for a mile and a half race. Life’s Hope was done soon after they hit the backstretch, his mission a complete failure. Soon after, it was obvious that Affirmed was a rudderless ship going nowhere but backwards. It was all Seattle Slew, who began to draw away. His only threat, Exceller was still in another zip code. But Slew had run his six furlongs in a suicidal 1:09 2/5. Cordero finally was able to give him a breather and slow down the pace heading into the far turn. But everyone at once saw the green silks of Exceller getting closer and closer and it looked as if the damage had been done. Slew’s gas tank had to be close to empty after those mind-boggling fractions and Exceller was cutting into his lead with every stride.

1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup official finish photo – Purchase photo to benefit the Exceller Fund, the non-profit equine organization assisting in Thoroughbred horse rescue and re-training.

Cordero had given Slew enough of a breather to at least have a little something left for the onslaught that was to come. As they neared the head of the stretch with Slew racing several paths out, Exceller came flying through the vacated rail and in a flash was alongside Slew, having all the momentum. It was only a question now of how many lengths he would win by. Bill Shoemaker, riding Exceller, said “I thought we’d win it easily.”

Cordero knew Exceller was coming fast and when he saw him on his inside he immediately starting pushing on Slew, trying to keep Exceller pinned down close to the rail. Slew, despite the unheard of early fractions, fought back and wouldn’t let Exceller get away. They battled eyeball to eyeball for an eighth of a mile, but leaving the eighth pole Exceller finally began to assert himself, getting a good half-length advantage. It looked over. Slew had given it all he had. But unbelievably, he wasn’t finished. He dug in again and started coming back at Exceller. With every stride. a relentless Slew was inching closer to Exceller, but his gallant effort fell a nose short. Andrew Beyer, reporting in the Washington Post, bluntly described this amazing performance in his opening line: “Exceller was the winner of yesterday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, Seattle Slew was its hero.”

It was 14 lengths back to Great Contractor, who was pretty much handed the show spot with Cauthen being unable to ride Affirmed and Life’s Hope backing out of it early in the race. The only other starter, former claimer One Cut Above, was totally overmatched and was never in the race.

The brief Seattle Slew – Affirmed rivalry ended as disappointingly as the Affirmed – Alydar rivalry. But after the 1978 Gold Cup Seattle Slew in defeat became recognized as one of the all-time greats. He ended the year with a 3 ¼-length victory in the Stuyvesant Handicap at Aqueduct carrying 134 pounds, putting the finishing touches on a turbulent, but sensational career. But that was just the beginning, as he went on to create a dynasty at stud.

Affirmed would return the following year, and after Laffit Pincay took over from a badly slumping Steve Cauthen he closed out his career with seven straight victories, six of them in Grade 1 stakes, earning his second straight Horse of the Year title by defeating Spectacular Bid in The Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Exceller followed up his Gold Cup victory by winning the Oak Tree Invitational on grass, but went winless in four starts the following year. In 1991, his syndicate was bought out by a Swedish breeder who brought him to stand in Sweden. After being diagnosed with a mysterious infection he was removed from stud service for several years. When Exceller’s owner went bankrupt, the horse was moved to a small farm where he remained for a year before he was sent to a slaughterhouse and killed for meat. That created an outrage across the world, especially in the United States, where the Exceller Fund was started, which, along with other organizations, campaigned for the protection of horses following their racing career.

All three horses now reside in the Hall of Fame, but they will also be remembered for the drama they created in one of the greatest races of all time and arguably the greatest losing effort of all time.


Please note the Askin Haskin blog will post next on November 3 with Steve’s 2022 Breeders’ Cup Analysis.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


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