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Star Wars and Seattle Slew

December 18, 2015

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One of 1977’s biggest sports moments was only brewing when “Star Wars” made its debut on the Memorial Day weekend.

George Lucas’ mega-hit opened on Friday.  Motorsports hero A. J. Foyt won his record-breaking fourth Indianapolis 500 victory two days later.

But the biggest sports sensation for casual fans waiting in lines for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Darth Vader was a colt named Seattle Slew, who began a run at horse racing’s Triple Crown on May 7th.

Seattle Slew established himself as a Derby favorite with big wins in Hialeah and the Flamingo Stakes.  By the time the 3 year old reached Churchill Downs, he was the odds-on favorite.  According to sportswriter Joe Hirsch, “the response to his presence on the racetrack, either for a morning workout or a major race, was electric. ‘Slewmania’ was a virulent and widespread condition.”

Spectators arrived expecting big things from Seattle Slew, but the colt lurched out of the gate like 3-CPO missing his legs and arms.  Jockey Jean Cruguet regained the reins and the horse challenged for the lead at half-distance.  Seattle Slew took control at the top of the homestretch and won the Kentucky Derby.  He then finished first at the Preakness, with a 1 and a half length margin over Iron Constitution.

Meanwhile, “Star Wars” turned into a similar favorite during the summer of 1977.  It gained a reputation for groundbreaking special effects, but its unknown cast and hard-to-define genre (was it science fiction?  Mumbo-jumbo mysticism?  A nostalgic nod to swashbuckling Errol Flynn movies of the 1930s?  Hell, there was even a climactic swordfight of sorts at the end with a dastardly villain in black).  The simple plot featuring pristine heroes and evil bad guys kept moviegoers coming back for return viewings, in a pattern for blockbusters first seen with Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” two years earlier.

Seattle Slew’s own blockbuster performance climaxed with the Belmont Stakes, making him the tenth Triple Crown winner.  He never lost a race in nine starts.

The New York Yankees’ Reggie Jackson became “Mr. October” with his 3 homer barrage against the Dodgers in the World Series.  By that time, “Star Wars” was still in the theaters, drawing crowds of multiple viewers. Ultimately, it would be eclipsed — for the moment — by a Brooklyn-set dance drama called “Saturday Night Fever.”

Sports fans only had to wait one year for another Triple Crown winner.  But a new hope for horse racing’s biggest honor wouldn’t be fulfilled until American Pharaoh, 37 years and five Star Wars franchise pictures later.

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