The West remains the land of opportunity. Entering the $250,000 Gold Cup at Hollywood Park last Sunday afternoon, Jockey Marco Castaneda was on a 41-race losing streak. Pay Tribute, the horse he was riding against millionaires Dahlia and Foolish Pleasure, as well as California hero Ancient Title and the 1975 Belmont Stakes winner, Avatar, was the longest price on the tote board at 14 to 1, and Pay Tribute had won less money ($116,000) and fewer races than any of his seven opponents. Furthermore, the instructions to Castaneda from Trainer Ron McAnally were to let somebody—anybody—take the lead at the start. Naturally, when the gate opened, the first horse visible was Pay Tribute.
But Castaneda took his chestnut colt back to third as Our Talisman went to the front with Dahlia, racing's Auntie Mame, stalking not far behind. At the head of the stretch Pay Tribute sprang to the lead and drew out to win by 3¼ lengths over Avatar and Riot in Paris. Dahlia, Foolish Pleasure and Ancient Title, winners of 40 stakes and $3.5 million between them, finished fourth, fifth and sixth. But handicap racing is that way. It is tough, confusing and, yep, quite upsetting at times.
Three thousand miles away and three hours earlier another thoroughbred superstar, Royal Glint, was charging toward the half-mile pole at Suffolk Downs in Boston, bent on winning the $100,000 Massachusetts Handicap, which would put him in the millionaire category, too. Suddenly, blood vessels burst in his head and the gelding collapsed in a heap as the field wheeled around him. Jockey Jorge Teleira, who hit the fence going down, and whose silks and riding pants were streaked with blood when he stood up, unhurt, was sure his mount had suffered a heart attack. But after a few moments Royal Glint got to his feet and walked to his barn. He should recover from his gigantic nosebleed in a few days and be ready to race in two to four weeks. Dancing Champ, a 9-to-1 shot, won the race.
This was to be a summer of fierce matchups, and it still could be, though this was hardly the way to draw first blood. Jimmy Kilroe, the director of racing at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, had said early in the week, "I can't recall a recent season when there were as many excellent horses around. Right now there are nine or 10, whereas most years we are lucky to have two or three. One reason is that there are some really fine geldings in training—Forego, Ancient Title and Royal Glint. Also, the winners of the 1975 Triple Crown events—Foolish Pleasure, Master Derby and Avatar—are still running. Dahlia is going strong again. There are others, such as Riot in Paris and Hatchet Man."
June 27, 1976
At the end of 1975 it seemed that this would be a woeful handicap season. Forego, twice Horse of the Year, was sent to the farm, laid low by infirmities that have dogged him during his career; Wajima, the late developer among last season's 3-year-olds, was retired to stud; and Foolish Pleasure was to be syndicated. But Forego recovered and Foolish Pleasure is apparently being given a chance to spruce up his racing record so that Owner John Greer gets the top dollar when the colt is sold for stud.
The surprise of the spring was Master Derby, who started a five-race win streak at the Fair Grounds in January. In his fifth race, the Oaklawn Handicap, he met Royal Glint and beat him by 1¼ lengths, receiving three pounds. Three weeks later they took their act to Garden State Park in New Jersey for the Trenton Handicap. This time, competing at equal weights, Royal Glint won by a neck. Those fighting finishes impressed racing fans enough for Master Derby to go off at 5 to 1 when he was beaten by a very short head by Forego in the Metropolitan Mile on Memorial Day. Royal Glint skipped that event, picking up some easy money at Hazel Park instead.
The Racing Form often needs radar to track Royal Glint. Since last Aug. 30 he has raced at Aqueduct, Arlington Park, Belmont, Bowie, Calder, Garden State (twice), Hawthorne (twice), Hazel Park, Hollywood Park, Oaklawn (twice), Santa Anita (twice) and Suffolk Downs. During that time he earned $637,784 and a commission in the Air Force.
Royal Glint showed his toughness in March when he flew West for the Santa Anita Handicap. On the morning of the race Skip Potter, son of Trainer Gordon Potter, went to visit the gelding in his stall. "He was wearing a cribbing strap," Skip Potter says, "and when I tried to put a muzzle on him, he threw his head back. The cribbing strap [an inch-wide leather collar] dropped down his neck and cut off his air. He lost his equilibrium and fell down. I got right to him and loosened the strap. It scared him and me, but it didn't hurt him." A few hours later Royal Glint bulled his way to the lead and won the race by a nostril over Ancient Title.
While Royal Glint was shooting for the million at Suffolk, Ancient Title was attempting to do the same in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Like Royal Glint—and, in fact, many geldings—Ancient Title has real personality. He drinks beer and often breakfasts on coffee and doughnuts. He has been the most respected California runner of the 1970s, winning 16 stakes. Although the Gold Cup marked the 36th consecutive time Ancient Title had run in a stake, he has had relatively few starts per year—only in 1975 did he have as many as 10.
Last summer Ancient Title traveled East and won the Whitney at Saratoga. He will have to go East again if he wants to take away Forego's Horse-of-the-Year championship; the big son of Forli sits in New York and makes the opposition come to him.
Any racing season in which Forego competes is a vintage one. He is a huge, mighty horse, and this year his record is 3 for 3. Put Forego in a decent stake and 5,000 extra people come through the gates to see him slug it out, the throngs circling the walking ring before the race to watch him parade. Forego is the kind of horse Civil War generals might have imagined themselves riding when they were finally cast in bronze to ornament village squares.
Commencing July 5, however, weight may come down hard on Forego. That afternoon he will try to take the second leg of the Handicap Triple Crown, the $100,000 1[3/16]-mile Suburban at Aqueduct. In the first leg, the Metropolitan, he carried 130 pounds and just got up to defeat the gritty Master Derby. Two weeks ago Forego lugged 132 while winning the Nassau County Handicap. There could be little doubt about the weight he will have to tote in his saddlebags this summer after being assigned 135 pounds for the Massachusetts Handicap. Trainer Frank Whiteley Jr. took one look and decided to keep his champion in the barn. Only two horses have won the Massachusetts under as much as 130 pounds—Seabiscuit in 1937 and Whirlaway in 1942.
Handicap racing is contentious at its best, and fans debate as heatedly about weights as suffering trainers like Whiteley. It is the racing secretary at the track who decides what imposts the starters carry. His aim is to have all entries arrive at the finish at the same instant.
The rule of thumb is that a pound difference in a mile-and-a-quarter race should separate two dead-even horses by a length. The closest any racing secretary has come to designing the perfect handicap was the triple dead-heat of Brownie (115 pounds), Bossuet (127 pounds) and Wait A Bit (118 pounds) in the 1944 running of the Carter at the old Aqueduct course. For years that photo finish has decorated American bars.
Racing enthusiasts squabble over how much weight a horse can carry and still win. Discovery took the Merchants' and Citizens' Handicap at Saratoga with 139 pounds in 1935. Kelso, five times Horse of the Year, started in 63 races and in 24 was forced to shoulder 130 pounds or more. He won 12 of those. Tom Fool finished first in all 10 of his races in 1953, four times with weights ranging from 130 to 136. Man o' War won eight of nine with 130 or more. Exterminator was a great weight carrier who went to the post 99 times and won 49. In the 35 events in which he carried 130 or over he lost just 15 times. Once he was asked to carry 140 pounds and finished sixth.
Whether this year's handicappers are as sturdy as those in the past remains to be seen. But if they fulfill their promise they could give new vigor and luster to a sport that has suffered in recent years from the quick entrances and exits of champions.
After the Gold Cup the owner of Pay Tribute, Max Gluck, said, "With that lineup of starters I thought whoever won the Gold Cup would have to be a fine horse, but I didn't think he would be mine." Yet in early June, Pay Tribute had narrowly lost to Riot in Paris and late in May he had been beaten in a photo by Ancient Title in the $100,000 Californian. "He is a horse who has been developing slowly," Trainer McAnally said. Gluck was plainly looking to the future. "There are a lot of big handicap races in the East in the fall," he said. "And the division, already strong, grew just a little bit stronger today."