Bill Shoemaker sat on a bench in the jockeys' room at New York's Belmont Park last Saturday afternoon after riding Forego to victory in the $173,200 Woodward Handicap. Splotches of dirt still clung to his face as he pulled off the yellow-and-black silks of Lazy F Ranch. The Woodward was the 680th stakes win of Shoemaker's career and the 115th in races worth $100,000 or more. To put Shoemaker's experience and excellence in perspective, he has ridden the winners of more $100,000 races than 90% of the world's jockeys ever even see. "Forego is as good a horse as any I have ridden," he said, measuring his words in his characteristic way. "It amazes me that he can carry as much weight as he did today [135 pounds] and still accelerate. It takes him a while to get his act together, but when he does, he is magnificent."
Forego has won 20 stakes, nine of them while carrying 130 or more pounds. He is a grand warrior, now six, a gelding who slugs it out race after bitter race on one sound leg. His consistency (42 times in the money in 47 starts) is awesome and very soon, assuming that he can still stand, he will become the first horse ever to earn $2 million. By capturing his third straight Woodward, Forego took over fourth place from Buckpasser on the alltime money-winning list with $1,484,997. Kelso's record of $1,997,896 remains several furlongs up the track, but if the Woodward is any indication it is now well within Forego's reach.
The 32,440 who watched the stake saw Forego's finest effort. As the field of 10 swept toward the stretch. Forego pulled wide to make his move, but it appeared that he was doomed. In front of him were three 3-year-olds—Honest Pleasure, Soy Numero Uno and Dance Spell—horses that collectively had been off the board only four times in 45 starts. Forego was giving the trio a total of 57 pounds. Just behind Forego was the improving stretch-runner Stumping, who was receiving 29 pounds.
It seemed Forego's rush was too wide and too late, and he surely was carrying too much weight. He had come out of the gate last and had advanced only to seventh after a quarter of a mile of the 1‚⅛-mile race. He had dawdled so long that Shoemaker wondered if he were going to run at all. Shoe had never ridden Forego before but had watched him compete several times on television and in films. "Each time, I had admired him because of his guts," he said. "I knew he wasn't the easiest horse to ride and had heard he had some physical problems."
A jockey does not ride as many winners as Shoe (7,133) or keep a career going as long (28 years) by operating simply on hearsay. Thus, when he arrived at Belmont Saturday from the West Coast, Shoemaker jumped on a scale to check his weight. The needle steadied at 95 pounds. "I borrowed the heaviest saddle I could find, and with all my tack my weight only went up to 106 pounds," he said. "That meant I'd have to carry 29 pounds of lead, and when you move a horse with that much dead weight you want the move to be smooth and continuous. You don't really have time for a mistake, and if you make one, it is unfair to the horse. Particularly a horse like Forego."
Shoemaker went to the stewards and asked permission to see films of Forego's 1976 races. Watching the reruns, he decided he would move at the top of the stretch, swinging wide while doing so. And that is precisely how he handled the enormous (17 hands) champion. It was as if Shoemaker were putting on a ride for future generations of apprentices to study, marvel at and absorb.
The crowd saw Forego's move begin, Shoemaker's ringed cap appearing outside the pack, and there was thunderous cheering. Ruben Hernandez, the rider of Dance Spell, had pushed ahead of Honest Pleasure, the pacesetter, and at that point believed he would be the victor. "Then, out of the corner of my eye I picked up a big blur," Hernandez said. "Then the blur went by my head. 'Jeez,' I said, 'it's all over for me.' "
Forego eased to the wire, winning by a length and a quarter in 1:45⅘ only two-fifths of a second slower than Secretariat's track record set in 1973 under 124 pounds.
For years the Woodward was the finest weight-for-age race in the U.S., a classic that often decided the Horse of the Year championship, but this season the New York Racing Association changed it to a handicap and shortened the race that had been a severely testing 1½ miles. The NYRA has billed its fall Belmont season as "The Meeting of Champions," not unreasonably, because in eight weeks 18 races worth $50,000 or more will be run. But traditional events have been meddled with, probably to hype interest and aid publicity. Not only was the Woodward changed, but the $250,000 Marlboro Cup, previously an invitational, was marred by being opened to all comers. And, horror of horrors, the Jockey Club Gold Cup was cut back from two miles to 1½ after 55 years, because, the NYRA said, the distance was "unrealistic." It did not seem unrealistic to some of the horses that won it: Gallant Fox, Twenty Grand, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation, High Gun, Nashua (twice), Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Buckpasser, Damascus and Kelso (five times in a row).
The next steps to a third straight Horse of the Year title for Forego will be the Marlboro on Oct. 2 and the Jockey Club on Oct. 23. Or will they? Immediately following the Woodward, Trainer Frank Whiteley Jr. said that Forego would not run with more than 135 pounds on his back. Was he just challenging the racing secretary, as all good trainers do, hoping to protect his horse from carrying the impossible? Whiteley denied he was daring anyone, but then restated his position, "He will run in the Marlboro Cup unless he gets more than 135 pounds." Certainly Forego's Woodward was good enough to demand that the racing secretary put more weight on him in his next start or leave him at 135 and drop the weights of his competition. (Forego has tried to lug 136 pounds twice and lost both times.)
Throughout his career Forego's owner, Mrs. Martha Gerry, has exhibited fine sportsmanship. She knows that weight "ceilings" carry a definite stigma. Furthermore, it is Kelso's money record that Forego is going after, and Kelso twice carried 136 pounds and won.
But Whiteley quite rightly worries about his horse's soundness. Before last year's Jockey Club Gold Cup, Forego's left foreleg swelled and he was withdrawn from competition for the season. His trainer at the time, Sherrill Ward, is a patient man who felt that Forego could come back in 1976 and be an even better horse. But Ward fell ill and was not able to oversee the horse's recuperation. Forego was fortunate enough to be sent to the equally patient Whiteley, who now bandages the gelding's legs heavily on race days. This apparently helps. During past seasons Forego's ankles have flared, and he has had splint and suspensory problems.
If anything, his ailments just seem lo attract admirers to the Forego cult, which is growing with each race, as Kelso's cult once did. Both are geldings who endured, who stayed around to be tested by weight and distance while the Secretariats retired to be tested as studs. On Woodward Day the Belmont crowd saluted Forego as never before. Craig Perret, the rider of Honest Pleasure, who ran well to finish in a dead heat for third with Stumping, four lengths behind Forego, best expressed the sentiment of the jockeys left up the track. "My horse gave everything he had," Perret said. "When that Old Man beats you there is nothing you can do about it. You just feel proud that you took your shot at him. He's been doing this for a long time now. Winning is his game." And nobody plays any game better.