On their third wedding anniversary, Karen Taylor told her husband, Mickey, that the gift she wanted more than anything else was a racehorse. “I’ve always loved animals,” she explains. At first Mickey, who runs a logging business, protested that “horses are too much money and work.” But when he made a killing in 1973 by buying up wood pulp before the price soared, Mickey bought his wife a thoroughbred. They sold it, bought another, sold that one, bought still another and so forth.
Today the Taylors find themselves in possession of a strapping, 1,145-lb. 3-year-old named Seattle Slew. He has never lost a race and is spoken of in hushed tones around U.S. tracks as the potential equal of Secretariat. And if that young couple’s casual entry into high-stakes racing only four years ago does not result in a Kentucky Derby victory this Saturday, there is even less justice in the world than everyone suspects.
Karen and Mickey are not themselves predicting that Seattle Slew will be draped in roses at Churchill Downs, but most of the handicappers are. The Taylors are in fact so psyched out by racing superstition that they refused even to discuss the Derby until two weeks ago. They know too well that thoroughbreds are frighteningly vulnerable to leg injuries that can shatter tiny bones and vast careers. They know that some unheralded horse could upset Slew. Most of all, they know that protocol frowns on boastful owners.
They have already surprised the clubby, white-suit Kentucky racing establishment with their decidedly non-mint-julep background. Karen, 32, and Mickey, 31, are near novices who came from nowhere—White Swan, Wash., to be exact (pop. 351). Karen was a stewardess for Northwest Orient Airlines for five years. She and Mickey still live in a mobile home on a Yakima Indian reservation.
They learned about racing slowly, horse by horse. That third-anniversary gift was an obscure yearling named Felicity Trueblood, whom they quickly replaced with Triangular. Mickey paid $65,000 for him on the advice of veterinarian Jim Hill who was recommended as a good judge of horseflesh. Triangular took a $50,000 stake and helped finance their next horse, Palladium, a $25,000 winner. Then in 1975 came Mama Kali, a mare whose winnings totaled $180,000.
That same year Dr. Hill spotted a mahogany bay yearling at a Kentucky auction. “He wasn’t shiny or pretty,” Hill says, “but I always look at the legs. Boy, did he have legs!”
Mickey and Karen took Hill’s advice and for a modest $17,500 bought the colt they named Seattle Slew. “Jim Hill comes from Florida, which I think of as slew, or swamp, country,” Karen has explained. “And our town in Washington, White Swan, didn’t sound right…so, well, you know.” Brought along cautiously by trainer Billy Turner Jr. (who still calls the horse “Baby Huey,” his pre-Taylor name), Slew entered only three races last year but won all of them easily. This year he was in the winner’s circle twice at Hialeah and led a field of six at the prestigious Wood Memorial at New York’s Aqueduct late last month.
Even unchallenged, Slew has clocked times equal to or better than Secretariat’s at the same age. But Karen worries that so much power could lead to a catastrophic misstep. “Something can happen for no reason at all.” Two years ago she was heartsick when her favorite, Lexington Laugh, broke a leg and had to be destroyed.
When Karen and Mickey were growing up around Yakima, 100 miles southeast of Seattle, she didn’t know the difference between a thoroughbred and a sawhorse. Her mother and grandmother grew apples and pears, while her father and grandfather were CPAs. The relatively citified Karen was awed by the rough-hewn Mickey when they met on a blind date in high school because “he was a logger, a cowboy and a basketball star.” He had trained with quarter horses and Clydesdales in his family’s logging camps.
Their courtship sputtered erratically for seven years, while Karen trailed Mickey through a succession of schools until he graduated from Western Washington State College in 1968. “I followed him as far behind as I would allow myself and as close as he would allow me to get,” Karen remembers.
After his father’s logging business hit a slump, Mickey formed his own company with brother Quirt on a $500 stake. They now have 80 employees and log 70 million board feet a year.
Karen meanwhile flew for Northwest out of Minneapolis. Her routes took her as far as Tokyo, and she angled for layovers in Seattle with Mickey. Finally, on April Fool’s Day, 1970, they decided to marry, picking a justice of the peace named Love out of the phone book because, as Karen says, “I’m a romantic.” Exhausted after an overnight flight, Karen remembers, “I didn’t see my husband on our wedding night because he was in the bar and I was fast asleep.” She continued to fly for the first three years of their marriage, once spending a summer layoff driving Mickey’s water truck on a 2-11 a.m. “hoot owl” shift.
The business is prospering, but the Taylors’ real passion now is caring for Slew. Mickey’s 63-year-old dad personally guards his stall until 10 p.m. each night as head of an around-the-clock security team. His mother sews all day in their camper nearby. (Typically, the young Taylors disdained New York hotel suites to live—and share their Jack Daniel’s—with the Hills on Long Island, near Slew.)
The Vegas early line already has their horse at 7-1 odds to cop the Triple Crown (the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes), even though he is still untested at the longer distances of those races. The Taylors plan to race Slew next year as a 4-year-old, despite a potential $10 million they could earn for his stud services. “We want to keep the horse,” Mickey explains, “and stand [i.e. breed] him ourselves.”
If the Taylors end up producing a new championship line under their black-and-yellow colors, it will be more than a little ironic. Karen has never ridden in her life and has no desire to start. Mickey has to take pills before he can bear to be around Slew. He’s allergic to horses.