Since it opened in 1864, the Saratoga racecourse has been known as the graveyard of favorites. Upset handed Man o' War his lone defeat there in the Sanford Stakes of 1919; Jim Dandy sloshed through the mud at 100 to 1 to beat Gallant Fox in the 1930 Travers; and only four years ago a horse virtually unknown outside his own stable, Onion, ran rings around Secretariat in the Whitney Stakes. Last Saturday, Saratoga added to its legend, and late that night it was easy to imagine witches and warlocks cackling as they inscribed another commemorative plaque: Forego, age 7, ran worst race of life in 1977 Whitney, finishing last in field of seven by 18 lengths. Beaten by a 3-year-old.
A crowd of 28,819 braved fog, then mist, then rain, to watch Forego try to carry 136 pounds over a sloppy Saratoga track against a group of runners that are hardly household names. The six other horses in the field had been to the post 250 times and won only seven U.S. stakes races. Forego had accounted for 23 all by himself. But Forego was entering the Whitney following two losses in a row, during which he had carried high—perhaps excessive—weights. Early in July, after winning his first three 1977 outings, Forego finished second in the Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park under 138 pounds; three weeks later he lost in the Brooklyn while lugging 137.
Although Forego was second in the Brooklyn, the tough old gelding got himself whipped by 11 lengths, easily the worst defeat of his career. True, he had lost by as wide a margin in the 1973 Kentucky Derby, which was won by Secretariat, but in that race he had brushed against the rail on his way to ending up fourth, a solid excuse for finishing so far behind a great champion.
But Forego's Whitney loss was far worse than his defeat in the Brooklyn. When the gate opened, Nearly On Time, garnished with 103 pounds, including Steve Cauthen, skipped to the lead and rolled merrily along. At the top of the stretch Cauthen was five lengths in front, and the remarkable 17-year-old, who was in the process of winning his record 300th race in New York this year, could have ridden backward the rest of the way and still won.
August 14, 1977
Willie Shoemaker had Forego away from the starting gate alertly enough, but the horse settled back into seventh place and never budged. At no time did it look as if he was going to launch a challenge—or even drive for a piece of the purse. It was the first time in 47 races that he failed to bring back a hunk of the action.
Ninety minutes after the race, LeRoy Jolley stood under an elm on the back-stretch, his trousers caked with mud from the winner's circle, and watched Nearly On Time cool out.
"This is a good colt," the trainer said. "As a 2-year-old he seemed to need five weeks between races to perform well, and that kept him out of the Triple Crown. But our patience with him has paid off [so far Nearly On Time has earned $169,352], and there isn't much doubt that getting 33 pounds from Forego helped. But the Forego we beat today was not the real Forego. I know that because I've run against him enough. The real Forego doesn't finish last."
Where is the real Forego? Perhaps one of the most splendid careers in racing is about to come to an end. Any racetracker worth a hayloft of clichés will tell you that "weight stops a freight train," but in his last two defeats Forego lost so badly—by a total of 29 lengths—that his losses cannot be explained by a bromide. It seems more likely that Forego is following the pattern of many handicap horses: when they start sliding downhill, they go quickly, victimized by age, infirmities and high weights.
For a long time Forego's trainer, Frank Whiteley Jr., has been complaining about the weights New York Racing Secretary Tommy Trotter has been slapping on his horse, yet until the last two races those weights brought Forego and his opponents extremely close together. In the 1977 Suburban Handicap, Forego carried 138 pounds and Quiet Little Table toted 114. Winner: Quiet Little Table by a neck. 1977 Nassau County Handicap—Forego 136, Co Host 110. Winner: Forego by half a length. 1977 Metropolitan Handicap—Forego 133, Co Host 111. Winner: Forego by two lengths. 1976 Marlboro Cup—Forego 137, Honest Pleasure 119. Winner: Forego by a head. 1976 Woodward Handicap—Forego 135, Dance Spell 115, Honest Pleasure 121. Winner: Forego by 1¼ lengths, with Dance Spell and Honest Pleasure in a dead heat for second.
Many experts wondered why Whiteley started Forego in the wet Whitney. On the morning of the race, Martha Gerry, the gelding's owner, was asked if he would start. "I doubt it very much," she said. "Not on a track like that." But Mrs. Gerry had wanted Forego to run at Saratoga; the fans there, she said, could then see the horse and see that his last race was just too bad to be true. So she and Whiteley decided to let Forego go, and their decision backfired disastrously. Now Forego will have to find his old form in a hurry if he is to become a four-time Horse of the Year and the first $2 million winner. He has won $1,818,957.
Before the Whitney, Mrs. Gerry had been receiving letters concerning the weights her horse had been forced to carry. "Many of them," she said, "are copies of angry letters that have been sent to Tommy Trotter." Mrs. Gerry is not a complainer, but she did say, "Forego lost his last race by 11 lengths carrying 137 pounds, and Trotter dropped him only a pound for the Whitney. That doesn't seem fair." When Whiteley was asked about the pound drop, he said, "Are we talking about 16 ounces? Yeah, that's one hell of a drop—16 ounces."
Yet another old racing expression ("You can't get any weight off by staying in the barn") could have been a telling factor in the decision to race Forego at Saratoga. Mrs. Gerry and Whiteley may have figured that if he won, that would be fine—and if he lost, that would be fine, too. After all, now that he has sustained two crushing defeats, Forego finally seems likely to get the kind of weight drop that could allow him to return to his old, majestic form. Of course, if Forego is wearing out, the decision to race him on an unfavorable track under so much weight could hardly have been a good one for the horse.
That is a perfect example of the quandary that the owners of handicap horses and racing secretaries find themselves in. Many horsemen feel that Forego's weights should be dropped along with those of his competition. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt says, "There used to be jockeys around who could make 100 pounds, or even into the 90s. I hear all the time that there just aren't enough riders around today who can get that low and, therefore, the weights must stay up. I think it should be the responsibility of the trainers to find such riders. Also, Forego has to start out his year in the handicaps, and if he wins, his weights necessarily go up. There just aren't enough weight-for-age races left, and the few that are come up in the fall."
Thus in attempting a comeback Forego will not have the luxury of a weight-for-age race until mid-October. "He'll run in the Woodward Handicap on Sept. 17 if we like the weights Trotter gives us," says Whiteley. "If not, we ain't going to run. Then we'd run in the Marlboro Cup after that. I'm sure that Seattle Slew's people took note of Forego's losses. But remember that Forego loves the fall. He doesn't like hot weather, and it has been hot before these losses."
Although Whiteley feels that Seattle Slew will face Forego in the Woodward and in the Marlboro Cup, setting up a dramatic fall racing season for Belmont Park, he may be disappointed. Slew's co-owner, Jim Hill, says, "We feel his next race is the second most important of his life, right behind the Belmont. We probably made a mistake by going to Hollywood Park, where he was beaten by J. O. Tobin. But that's behind us now. If Slew comes back and wins a race against 3-year-olds, then we might take on Forego in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at weight for age."
Nearly On Time was at the other end of the scale in the Whitney. His 103 pounds made him the lightest-weighted horse to win the race in the 23 years it has been contested as a handicap. That fact undoubtedly helped Cauthen get his record win, which surpassed the 299 victories Jorge Velasquez had in New York in 1976. It was also the second-richest win of Cauthen's young life. He should have many more like it, but because of the wear and tear of handicap racing, Forego may not. Each race could be his last, and one more defeat like the one he sustained in the Whitney would demean him. Mrs. Gerry knows—or, at least, she should—that money records are quickly forgotten in racing. But memories of horses that retire while they are still thought of as champions are not.