Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Perfect Horse

--Sue Finley

Yesterday, Airdrie Stud announced that they were pensioning Slew City Slew. Many will recall him as the sire of 54 black type winners, or as a two-time Grade I winner, or the sire of Lava Man. But 25 years ago, he meant the world to me for entirely different reasons.

I was a terrible hotwalker. Really, truly terrible. My `real’ job was working in the NYRA press office, where I had been hired my senior year in college in 1984. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that if I were going to promote racing, I really should understand it not just from the fan’s perspective, or from the company’s perspective, but from the backside perspective as well.

Being the mid-eighties, I had interviewed Woody Stephens about a million times during my first year or so of the job. He was not only in the middle of his incredible run of five consecutive Belmonts, but had assembled some of the most amazing equine talent and pedigrees in history. It seemed like a great opportunity to learn about horse care and training from one of the true legends of the sport. So, one day, during the spring of 1985, I tentatively asked him if I could maybe walk hots for him a couple of days a week. He said that pay day was Friday, and that some of the hotwalkers would go out and get drunk Friday night and not show up for work on Saturday, so if I wanted a job on weekends, it was mine, as he could use the extra help. Simple as that, and I was in.

The legendary Woody Stephens
The pay was $25 a day, or about $41 per weekend, after taxes. I was taking home $160 a week at the time for NYRA, so this was a serious boost to my finances. Now, after my rent, car and student loans were paid, I would now actually be able to afford dinner, if not every day, at least sometimes.

Woody had two barns back then, Barn 3 and 4. Barn 3, run by Sandy Bruno and Phil Gleaves, was where he kept the older horses. Billy Badgett was in charge of Barn 4, and the two-year-olds. They told me that the barns alternated sets, so I would walk a horse in the first set in Barn 3, then in the second in Barn 4, and so on, back and forth all morning.

I showed up the first day, and was sent to Barn 3, where a groom led a cold horse out of a stall, and handed her over to me. Her name was Soli, by Alydar out of Nicosia, and she was on the shelf at that time, but had won the Shirley Jones at Gulfstream that winter, and they expected big things out of her. The groom pointed to a bucket, hanging out the outside wall, and told me that was her bucket. Every two turns, give her a drink, he said. She walked very placidly for me around the barn, and I noticed all the other horses drinking out of the big communal tub in the middle. A couple of turns, and I tried to steer her to the outside wall, which proved to be much harder than I thought. She wanted to drink from the tub in the middle. It seemed so much I let her. The groom looked at me like nobody could be that stupid. She was sick, and I had just risked passing that infection to the entire barn. Disgusted, he changed the entire water tub.

My next horse was Alexandra My Love, a Danzig filly. She hadn’t been out of the stall in three weeks with some sort of injury...and they gave her to me. She took about 20 steps to each of my three, and since I was holding her head, this meant that her rear would swing around in front of me and she would end up facing me every three strides or so. I tried to walk faster...but I wasn’t even close to keeping up. Literally, I had no idea how to solve this problem. So around the barn we went, with her wheeling, and me straightening her out, every three strides, for a half an hour. More `I can’t believe anyone could be this stupid’ stares followed from my co-workers.

Soon, I discovered that walking horses in Billy’s barn, full of young two-year-olds not yet nearing a race, proved to be a much easier task, so I took to hanging out there, until one day, I was walking Two Punch and someone startled him by adjusting his blanket from behind, and he lunged forward, knocking me into the water tub and sending it flying, and then running out the center doors with me holding on. I was somewhat proud I hadn’t let go, seriously bruised...and from then on, scared to death.

Two punch provided me an early scare
Barbara Livingston photo
 I lasted the summer and fall at Woody’s, until he headed south for the winter. The next spring, I decided to give it another go. I had interviewed John Hertler several times, and he seemed like a really nice guy, so I asked him if I could work two days a week for him. My friend, Cathy Riccio, was working as a groom for him, and promised me that she’d lay me into the easiest hotwalking spots there were, keeping me far away from the crazies. My general unease with the whole situation was never far from the surface, however, stoked by incidents like the day Proud Truth got loose, charged into our barn, and took a serious interest in the filly I was walking.

On April 1, 1986, however, my salvation arrived in the form of a tiny, quiet two-year-old. By Seattle Slew out of Weber City Miss, Slew City Slew showed up in John’s barn the first day two-year-olds were allowed on the backstretch. He was dark, with few markings, and so placid, you could set a bomb off and he wouldn’t turn a hair. He never startled, paid no attention to loud noises, which made him, in my mind, about as close to perfect as a horse could get.

He would take three steps in the shedrow, stop and sigh, needing some mild encouragement to move along. Oftentimes, when he would stop, he would rest his head on my shoulder, just content to stand still with me. I let no one else walk him, and started to stretch out our allotted 30 minutes of walking time, just to delay the time when they would hand me a fit monster, like Mugatea.

`How long have you had that horse?’ the groom would ask me after we had been out 45 minutes or so. `15 minutes,’ I would tell him. If I could hose him, and hold him in the tub, some days I could get away with spending two hours or so just on him; me sitting, and him resting his head on my shoulder.

He started two times that year, and was well-beaten in both. My heart was broken sometime thereafter when he was sent over to Wayne Lukas’s barn, and I remember seeing him in the paddock one day before a race. He had grown into a man, and was imposing, and on the muscle...far from the frail baby I recalled.

Upon his retirement from stud yesterday, Airdrie’s Brereton Jones said, “He’s been awfully good to us for a long time, and he’ll continue to live out the rest of his life in the best of care.”

He’s 27 now, and I haven’t seen him in a quarter-century. This November, when I’m in town for the sales, I’ll ask the kind folks at Airdrie if I could come visit, and rest my head on his shoulder this time, and say thanks for that tiny respite each day when my very scary job wasn’t quite so scary.


The_Knight_Sky said...

Loved Slew City Slew myself. He was in raging form during the latter part of 1988 and into 1989.

I'm sure Ms. Morris remembers that valiant try in The 1988 Meadowlands Cup when the classy Alysheba was forced to run him down under the lights.

They just don't make 'em like that anymore.

suefinley said...

I do remember. But I wasn't Ms. Morris any more by then!

Brian said...

Great read, Sue.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your memories of this fabulous horse, Sue!

dana said...

Great read, looking forward to your post-visit post! Thanks for sharing.

Vickie said...

Loved this story, Sue! It must have been a great experience to work there.

Lisa C said...

I got a teeny bit misty-eyed at the end of this one... thanks so much for sharing this, Sue.

suefinley said...

Thanks, Lisa. I get misty every time I read it.

race said...

Wow!--Any time you need a little boost, just reflect on the great experiences you had back in the 80's--a special time indeed--Thx-r