Trainer Lazaro Barrera was pacing near the finish line at Belmont Park last Saturday, waiting for Jockey Jacinto Vasquez to bring Lemhi Gold back to the winner's circle, when he and owner Aaron U. Jones spotted each other through the crowd. The smiling Jones seemed levitated as he approached his trainer. There's nothing quite like winning nearly a quarter of a million dollars in two minutes to lift a man's feet off the ground. Seeing Barrera, he threw his arms in the air. In reply, Barrera held out two fists and pumped them vigorously, twice. Jones reached out and the two men embraced.
"I told you you'd do it, you son of a gun!" Jones said. "You've got to have faith in me."
As Vasquez reined the colt to a stop, Jones grinned, wagged a finger at him and said, "I told you, my friend!"
Jones had good reason to crow, because Lemhi Gold, a 4-year-old colt that he had bred, raised and named, had just beaten the three most vaunted horses in the country and made off with the $400,000 Marlboro Cup Handicap.
The Marlboro is a mile and a quarter, the classic distance in America, and Lemhi had to hustle over every inch of it to win. He stalked the pace-setting Pair of Deuces from the drop of the flag to the backstretch straight, started breathing on him as they raced to the three-quarter pole, took him by the throat as they rushed off the turn for home and then shook him loose as he pleased through the stretch, winning by 8¾ lengths in a commendable 2:01, paying $17.
"I just couldn't keep up with him," said Eddie Maple, the rider of Pair of Deuces, the 28-1 shot who faded to third. The stretch-running Silver Supreme, who went off at 16-1, passed a lot of wet sails to finish second.
Timely Writer, the tepid 2-1 favorite, never threatened and finished seventh, while the 5-2 second choice, Silver Buck, ended up fourth. Perrault, the third choice at 7-2, made a fight of it early but injured himself, apparently at the far turn, forcing Laffit Pincay Jr. to pull him up in the stretch. Muttering, at 4-1, ran the last three furlongs on empty, finishing sixth under Bill Shoemaker. "No excuse," The Shoe said. It's the One, Lemhi Gold's gifted stablemate, ran as if he hadn't run in two months—which he hadn't—and came in fifth.
Thus, the three horses generally given the least chance to win the Marlboro Cup finished 1-2-3, while the four main contenders—excepting Perrault—were outrun from wire to wire. The race thoroughly confused what it was supposed to clarify—who would be Horse of the Year. With the ballyhooed Timely Writer, Perrault and Silver Buck shot down, the retired Conquistador Cielo, who finished third in last month's Travers, isn't out of it. Blame Lemhi Gold.
"This is the second-best horse I ever trained," said the 57-year-old Barrera, a Hall of Fame trainer who conditioned 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed, 1976 Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Bold Forbes and several other major stakes champions. "First Affirmed, second Lemhi Gold."
And this comes in praise of a horse that wasn't even on the original invitation list for the Marlboro Cup. In fact, Barrera would have preferred to pass the Marlboro and aim for the $150,000 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 3. The Man o' War is run on grass, and Lemhi Gold is already a candidate for the American grass championship.
A son of Vaguely Noble, himself a champion lawn mower in Europe and later the sire of many top turf horses, Lemhi Gold had a pedigree that clearly suggested grass. Jones had arranged for the pedigree, sending Belle Marie, a daughter of Candy Spots, to Vaguely Noble in Kentucky in the spring of 1977. Jones owns a lumber business in Eugene, Ore. but spends some of his leisure time at a cabin in Idaho built on the banks of Lemhi Creek, near an old gold-mining claim. Hence Lemhi Gold.
The colt showed he was at home on dirt, winning the first start of his life on it at Santa Anita last year by 14 lengths. Off that, Barrera and Jones figured they had themselves a Kentucky Derby horse, but he bucked his shins in his second start and wasn't up to the '81 spring classics. He almost won the Jim Dandy on the dirt at Saratoga last year, getting beat a neck by Willow Hour. "He got shut off twice," Barrera says. "He should've won." A couple of weeks later, he did a flip in the starting gate before the Jerome Handicap at Belmont, injured his back and finished ninth. That was it for the year.
"He's such a free-spirited, extroverted horse that he sometimes hurts himself," says Jones.
The colt ran creditably in his first two races this year, both on the dirt at Santa Anita, but he began gaining national attention when Barrera put him on the grass there. He won three in a row, including April's San Juan Capistrano Handicap by seven lengths in just a fifth of a second off the 1¾-mile turf course record of 2:45[2/5]. After coming in second in the Hollywood Invitational, he won the Sword Dancer Stakes on the Belmont turf in July; was fourth in the Whitney Stakes on the dirt (he leaped gazelle-like out of the gate and tore off part of a hoof); and then finished fourth in the Budweiser Million on the grass at Arlington. "A rough trip," Barrera says. "Lost a lot of ground."
Barrera is not only a consummate horseman but also is adept at picking the most favorable spots. After the Budweiser Million, that spot for Lemhi Gold appeared to be the Man o' War on the grass. His owner disagreed.
"I wanted to prove that this horse could run on the dirt," Jones said. "I felt he never had a proper chance to prove himself on the dirt. He'd had bad luck on it." Of course, proving that point in a race as important as the Marlboro Cup—a mile and a quarter without a cigarette—would considerably enhance his value as a stallion prospect. "I prevailed on Laz," Jones said.
The only problem, of course, was that the horse hadn't been asked to run in the race. John T. Landry, senior vice-president of marketing at Philip Morris and the originator of the race, and Pat O'Brien, a former New York racing official who oversees the Marlboro Cup for Philip Morris, didn't have Lemhi Gold on their original list. On Sept. 9, just nine days before the race, Barrera asked O'Brien why the colt hadn't been invited.
"He's a grass horse," O'Brien said. "I hadn't even considered him."
"Well, consider him," Laz said. "This horse can go both ways." New York Racing Secretary Lenny Hale evaluated the horse's past performances and recommended he join the field. Landry approved. Five days before the race. Hale released his weight assignments. They showed Perrault as the highweight, at 128 pounds, and Lemhi Gold as the low-weight (along with Fit to Fight, who later scratched), at 115. Barrera now felt he had a very good chance.
For days he had sensed he was on to something. On Sept. 9, Barrera had begun preparing the colt for the Marlboro. He decided to sharpen his speed, so he sent him out to work a fast five-eighths on the dirt. Lemhi Gold did it in :57[4/5] seconds, the fastest time of any horse at that distance that day, and then galloped the six furlongs in better than 1:10.
The work left the colt wide-eyed and ready. In the days leading up to the Marlboro, Barrera made daily reference to it. When a writer came by to talk about It's the One, his other horse, Barrera steered him toward Lemhi Gold, and it soon became evident whose chances he liked better. "He worked 57 and [4/5]ths [for five furlongs] and galloped out in nine and change [1:09-plus for six]," Barrera would say. "You don't think he likes the track? He can't look better. He's very good right now and he can beat anybody in the race.... I don't see no reason why he can't win on the dirt.... Don't overlook this horse."
If getting into the race required last-minute scrambling, so did finding a rider. Barrera named Angel Cordero to ride him, but on Thursday Cordero announced he would be on Silver Supreme—to fulfill a promise he had made to that horse's trainer, Richard DeStasio. So Barrera reached out and touched Vasquez. On Saturday it was all over coming to the turn for home. Jones's optimism had been justified. "He proved today that he can run anywhere," he said. As for Vasquez, all he really had to do was sit there. "Hey," said the winner, "I got to thank Cordero."