It was long ago, 55 years to be exact, that a horse did what Forego accomplished last Saturday in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park. The oldtimer's name was Exterminator, and he lugged 137 pounds around Woodbine in Canada to win the 1-mile Toronto Autumn Cup Handicap. At the time Exterminator, like Forego, was six years old. Exterminator, the beloved Old Bones, was the first gelding to be regarded as great, and even now there are those who swear when they walk past the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga on soft summer nights they can hear his hoofbeats. As a 7-year-old, Old Bones got even better, but by the time he reached eight the pressures and agony of carrying weight had begun to slow him. In 1924 at the age of nine, after 20 career wins under 130 pounds or more, Exterminator broke down.
Now, half a century later, racing has another Old Bones. The $283,700 Marlboro proved that. Forego's drive from far back through the muddy stretch and victory by a head over the dead-game Honest Pleasure was a performance unmatched on an American track in at least a decade. It brought to mind Joe Palmer's description of Man o'War: "He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else." Only Exterminator and Whisk Broom II ever managed to win a major race carrying as much as 138 pounds over a distance of 1¼ miles.
When Forego won the Woodward three weeks ago, hefting 135 pounds, horsemen said it was his finest race, and it was difficult to believe then that he-could equal that performance. But Forego not only equaled it, he exceeded it, gloriously, in the Marlboro. Bill Shoemaker, his jockey, said of the race, "When we were nearing the top of the stretch with a little more than a quarter of a mile to run, I didn't think Forego would be in the money. I knew darn well I wasn't going to win. Then he dug in and started to roll. With an eighth of a mile left it still seemed impossible. At the sixteenth pole I thought, 'Hey, just maybe he can get there.' When he did I was amazed. Forego is the greatest horse I have ever ridden."
Since Shoemaker is not given to excessive praise, this has to be considered a remarkable statement. During his brilliant career he has been aboard the winners of 681 stakes as well as nearly half of the top 40 money-winners of all time. "I don't ever remember riding a horse carrying as much as 137 pounds," he said. "I won the United Nations Handicap in 1959 with Round Table on the grass at Atlantic City when he carried 136." Round Table loved to run on the grass, and in the United Nations he was near the lead all the way. "But," Shoe continued, "this was different. It was the greatest race I've ever been in or seen."
October 10, 1976
Two hours before the Marlboro there was doubt that Forego would go to the post. It was believed he did not like off tracks because of his large size. It was suggested that any time a water faucet was turned on in nearby Ozone Park, Forego called for his rubbers. Until the Marlboro he had only competed once on a muddy track (he was third), even though he had made 47 lifetime starts.
Trainer Frank Whiteley Jr. considered scratching Forego until the fourth race on the card when Shoemaker went out to ride a filly named Slip Screen in a $30,000 allowance event. Shoemaker is a superb mud jockey; he set a Santa Anita record by riding six winners in a row one rainy day in 1962—horses that for the most part were unshod because of a blacksmiths' strike.
Shoemaker finished second with Slip Screen and then huddled with Whiteley. The jockey told the trainer that while the track was turning from sloppy to muddy, the course had a good bottom. So Forego stayed in the race.
Weight and off tracks are the two principal reasons good horses get beaten. Of the two, weight is the more significant factor, and 130 pounds seems to be the barrier that separates good horses from great ones. "That 130-pound thing is hard to explain," Eddie Arcaro said a couple of days before the Marlboro. "I liken it to a man standing on a bridge that is starting to crack and tremble. Somebody puts another pound in the man's arms. He's standing there watching the crack get wider, and he knows if the guy comes back with another pound, both of them are going to end up in the drink. Only an outstanding horse will be able to carry 130 pounds over a distance of ground and win."
Discovery, Armed, Kelso, Tom Fool, Swaps, Bold Ruler, Gallant Man and Equipoise could carry a lot of lead successfully. But other fine horses, for one reason or another, either never carried 130 or never won with it: among them are Nashua, Citation and Secretariat. Man o'War carried 130 or more nine times and won all but one start. He carried 130 six times as a 2-year-old, a feat that seems impossible these days.
In the end, it was weight that sent Man o'War to stud. Big Red won a stake his final season carrying 138 pounds, and soon afterward his owner, Sam Riddle, approached Walter Vosburgh, the racing secretary and handicapper in New York. "If I run Man o'War as a 4-year-old," Riddle asked, "how much will you put on him?" Vosburgh said coolly, "The heaviest weight a horse has ever carried." Riddle retired Man o'War, and 15 years later he made a speech in which he expressed his feelings about racing secretaries. "They know a lot about horses," Riddle said. "They know which end kicks and which end bites."
The feud between trainers and racing secretaries is an old and honored one. Assigning high weights can send a good horse out of one town into another and thus hurt attendance and betting handles. Many trainers will nominate a good horse to as many as three stakes on one weekend and then pick the easiest spot. For example, last March Dan Lasater entered Royal Glint in the $100,000 John B. Campbell Handicap at Bowie in Maryland. The horse was assigned 127 pounds, and Lasater chose instead to ship 3,000 miles to accept 124 pounds in the Santa Anita Handicap. Glint won by a nose. "It wasn't the money or the three pounds we were thinking about," Trainer Gordon Potter explained. "It was what would happen later. If you win with 127 pounds, the next step could be 130."
Until the Marlboro, Forego had twice carried 136 pounds unsuccessfully, and some believed Tommy Trotter, the racing secretary in New York, might give Forego 136 pounds or keep him at 135 and drop weight off his opponents.
"I saw the Woodward," Trotter said last week, "and knew how impressively Forego had won. I thought he should go up two pounds and so assigned him 137. You don't call up a trainer and tell him what you have done; you just have the weights mimeographed and let him make up his mind. In the days following the release of the weights, I saw Frank Whiteley several times and we talked. The one thing we didn't talk about was weights."
Trotter was taught his craft by two outstanding race secretaries, Frank E. (Jimmy) Kilroe and the legendary John Blanks Campbell, the man who handicapped Brownie (115 pounds), Bossuet (127) and Wait A Bit (118) into a triple dead heat in the 1944 Carter Handicap. In July of this year Trotter had almost matched Campbell's finish. In the Suburban he assigned Forego 134 pounds. Foolish Pleasure 125 and Lord Rebeau 116, and they finished noses apart, with Foolish Pleasure winning. "That was a race I was proud of," Trotter says.
Before Trotter announced his Marlboro weights, Forego's owner, Martha Gerry, had considered the possibilities. "I was hoping he would give us 136 pounds," she says, "but I knew he would probably put 137 on Forego. Frank made some remarks about not running with more than 135, but he has to make statements like that because he's a trainer. I wanted to run. I was worried about Forego getting hurt or being beaten and then when it rained for three straight days prior to the race I was beside myself. I love Forego and he seems to understand me. He knocks people down and even bites his groom at times, but he eats apples from my hand. I decided to run him with 137 pounds even though he might get beat."
Trotter's two high weights finished inches apart, and the win with 137 now ensures Forego his third consecutive Horse of the Year title. (Kelso won five from 1960 to 1964 but never was forced to carry more than 136 pounds.)
Forego is now $344,783 short of becoming racing's first $2 million winner and deserves the chance to carry on like Kelso and Exterminator. Two weeks from now, in the $300,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup, he will get some respite from racing secretaries when he runs under weight-for-age conditions at Belmont, carrying 126 pounds over 1½ miles. The 3-year-old Honest Pleasure, if he starts, will go to the post with 121. Forego will be an overwhelming favorite.
The drama of the big gelding's homestretch drive last Saturday tended to obscure the fact that he was timed in 2:00, only one-fifth of a second off the track record he set last year with 132 pounds over a blistering fast track. Exterminator, by the way, won that Autumn Cup Handicap 55 years ago in 2:05[1/5]. Draw your own conclusions as to where Forego now stands as a runner.
Craig Perret, the jockey on Honest Pleasure, has drawn his. Perret rode a flawless race and was just edged, but it marked the fifth straight time this year the jockey has finished behind Forego in a stake. "That dude has plain got my number," Perret said. "He must think I'm a piece of fried chicken on a plate because he comes along all the time and takes a big bite out of me."