2023 Louisiana Derby Cheat Sheet: Get to Know the Horses
Last week I wrote about the 50th anniversary of Damascus and my introduction to Thoroughbred racing. While on the subject of anniversaries, I feel it is only appropriate to write about the 40th anniversary of one of the most emotional and memorable races I’ve ever seen. It has been established that Damascus’ feats of total domination, durability, toughness, explosiveness, and weight carrying ability stand among the greatest achievements in racing history, as under-appreciated as it may be.
But six years after Damascus’ retirement came a massive 17-hands gelding who defied all odds physically to become as great a weight carrier as the sport has ever seen, while demonstrating feats of raw speed, versatility, endurance, and longevity which have never been equaled, and most likely never will. I didn’t include his weight-carrying ability in there, because that has earned its own chapter in the history books.
This is about the gelding they called “The Mighty Forego,” and, like Damascus, his reputation and popularity would be right up there with Secretariat and Seabiscuit had he raced in today’s social media society.
When Forego went to the post for the 1977 Woodward Stakes, a race he had won the previous three years, there were serious doubts about the 7-year-old, whose numerous physical issues appeared to be finally be slowing him down. In addition, the track at Belmont Park that day was sloppy, and Forego had proved in his last start, the Whitney at Saratoga, that his gargantuan frame, chronic sesamoid issues, and calcium-riddled knees prevented him from grabbing hold of a wet surface.
To set the Woodward up, it is best to go back over the previous three unforgettable seasons, in which Forego took the torch from Secretariat and gave racing fans another larger-than-life hero to worship.
Forego’s greatness first surfaced on May 18, 1974, the day of the Carter Handicap at Belmont. As I looked at the tote board, I couldn't believe the odds. Forego was favored at 7-5, despite dropping back to seven furlongs following victories in the 1 1/4-mile Widener and Gulfstream Park Handicaps and obviously running in the Carter strictly as a prep for the Metropolitan Handicap.
To make his task even more difficult, his Carter foes included arguably the fastest horse in the country, Mr. Prospector, who had already set a track record of 1:07 4/5 at Gulfstream in 1973, a track record of 1:08 3/5 at Garden State Park in ‘74, and had won two other races in '74 in 1:08 1/5 at Gulfstream Park and 1:09 flat at Aqueduct. And he won each time by big margins.
Also in the field was Tartan Stable's Lonetree, who had defeated Mr. Prospector that year in the seven-furlong Poinciana Handicap at Hialeah in a blazing 1:21 flat, breaking the track record by almost three-fifths of a second. Add to those two speedballs Timeless Moment, who had equaled the six-furlong track record of 1:08 3/5 at Aqueduct the year before, just missed the 6 1/2-furlong track record at Belmont by two-fifths of a second, and had won a pair of seven-furlong allowance races at Aqueduct that spring in 1:22 1/5 and 1:22 2/5. Still another in the field was William Haggin Perry's Forage, who was coming off a second-place finish (disqualified to third) in the seven-furlong San Simeon Handicap at Santa Anita Park in 1:21 1/5. He would go on to break the track record for a mile at Aqueduct two months later, winning an allowance race in 1:33 1/5 before capturing the Du Pont and Atlantic City Handicaps.
So, why should the stretch-running Forego beat so many brilliant horses in his first sprint in six months, carrying topweight of 129 pounds? Well, as I was about to find out, because he was no ordinary horse.
Mr. Prospector, as expected, shot to the lead and led by 1 1/2 lengths over Lonetree through fractions of :22 1/5 and :45 flat. Forego was back in last, nine lengths off the pace, and looked to have an impossible task. A sucker bet if I ever saw one. Then he began making up ground steadily under Heliodoro Gustines, circling his field and closing in on the leaders. At this moment, I first came to the realization that we were looking at something special.
Mr. Prospector was being pushed along by Walter Blum, as was Lonetree. But here was Forego in an out-and-out gallop, with his ears up and Gustines sitting motionless in the saddle, his hands tucked up near his chest. Without the slightest bit of encouragement, Forego blew by Mr. Prospector with more than a quarter of a mile still to run. He opened up by 1 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole and was still under wraps as he coasted to the finish line 2 1/4 lengths ahead of Mr. Prospector in 1:22 1/5.
This, to me, was the beginning of the Forego dynasty, when we first realized this horse was something out of the ordinary. Normally, statistics do not play a major role in these blogs, but Forego's stats over the course of his career were so remarkable they must be mentioned before anything else. And they must be prefaced by saying that Forego was one of the most unsound horses you're likely to see, with sesamoid problems that plagued him throughout his career, as well as calcium deposits. When Frank Whiteley took over his training in 1976 from Sherrill Ward, he told owner Martha Gerry that Forego had the worst legs he’d ever seen on a horse. It was said about Forego that he basically had one good leg. Whiteley would sit outside his barn every day hosing down Forego’s legs for several hours. The resulting puddle was so large it became known around the barn as Lake Whiteley.
As Whiteley said several years ago, "Everybody laughed at me when I took him, even Doc [Alex] Harthill, who X-rayed him and told me, ‘Frank, you haven't got a chance with this horse.’ It was the constant hosing of his legs that helped get him to the races. I got a picture of in my bedroom of me and two other guys runnin’ three hoses on him at the same time. We’d hose him twice a day for two to three hours each time. We also did a lot of massaging. His ankles were horrible to look at from so much wear and tear. He was an amazing horse to do the things he did."
Forego’s performance in the Carter was the first indication of how versatile he was. But we found out for sure in astonishing fashion later that year. Just imagine, in a span of only six weeks, a horse winning the 1 1/2-mile Woodward Stakes, then the seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap (in 1:21 3/5 under 131 pounds), and finally the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. At the end of the year, Forego became the only horse in history to win the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup and be voted champion sprinter the same year.
To further demonstrate his versatility, he won four of his five starts, with one second, at distances of 1 1/2 miles or longer, and won eight of his 12 starts, with two seconds and two thirds, at seven furlongs.
In his first start as an 8-year-old, a seven-furlong allowance dash, he defeated that year's co-champion sprinter and conqueror of Seattle Slew, Dr. Patches, in 1:21 3/5.
Then we come to consistency, most likely Forego’s most amazing attribute, considering how unsound he was.
From May 30, 1973 until Aug. 6, 1977, Forego went an incredible 45 consecutive races without finishing worse than fourth. In fact, he finished third or better in 43 of those races. During this streak, Forego ran in 31 handicaps and was highweighted in all but one, winning 19 of them.
That brings us to weight-carrying ability. Forego finished in the money in 21 of the 24 races in which he carried 130 pounds or more, including 13 wins, five seconds, and three thirds. In these 24 starts, the average weight he carried was just under 134 pounds. I’ll repeat, the average weight was 134 pounds. In the 14 races in which he carried 134 or more, he finished in the money in 12 of them, with six wins, four seconds, and two thirds. He was fourth in another, and the only time he was off the board was over a very sloppy track in the Whitney, a race that will be discussed later.
Forego's most memorable victory was the 1976 Marlboro Cup, in which he turned in a spectacular stretch run from way out in the middle of the track to nip the record-breaking Travers winner Honest Pleasure at the wire under a staggering 137 pounds in the slop, missing the track record by a fifth of a second.
It was his previous start that has gotten lost in the history books, but remains one of the most remarkable races ever run. Forego defeated the hard-knocking and classy Dance Spell and Honest Pleasure by 1 1/4 lengths in the Woodward Handicap with another furious stretch run. In one of the great exhibitions of speed and weight carrying, he ran the 1 1/8 miles in a near-track-record 1:45 4/5, carrying 135 pounds.
After winning five straight races (four of them carrying 135 pounds, 137 pounds, 133 pounds, and 136 pounds), he finally was stopped by the weight at age 7, missing by a neck in the Suburban Handicap under 138 pounds.
After finishing second by 11 lengths in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn under 137 and being virtually eased in the Whitney Handicap over a slippery track he could never get hold of under 136 pounds, it looked as if the mighty Forego finally was nearing the end of the line. Owner Mrs. Martha Gerry and Whiteley wanted to scratch him in the Whitney, but because so many people had shown up to see Forego, Mrs. Gerry didn't want to disappoint them and decided to let him run. Whiteley told Bill Shoemaker before the race that if he saw Forego wasn't handling the track after the first few strides to just sit on him and let him run around there and bring him back safe. Shoemaker could sense right away that Forego was slipping over the track and was unable to grab hold of it, and did as Whiteley said. It was a bitter disappointment for the Saratoga fans and Forego’s loyal legion of fans, and after three straight defeats, the thought entered everyone’s mind that Forego, at age 7, was not the same horse and that his career finally was coming to the end.
Forego returned to Belmont to point for the Woodward. This would be the big test to see whether he had any more to give. Unfortunately, the track came up sloppy again, leaving Whiteley and Mrs. Gerry with another tough decision. Yes, Forego had won the Marlboro Cup on a sloppy track the year before, but that was a drying-out surface that was pretty firm underneath. Unlike the slick conditions in the Whitney, this also was more of a drying-out slop, but not as fast as the Marlboro Cup and with plenty of moisture still in it. Forego, despite losing his last three races, would have to run on the wet surface carrying 133 pounds, giving 18 pounds to Great Contractor, the horse who beat him by 11 lengths in the Brooklyn; 12 pounds to J. O. Tobin, who was making his first start since annihilating Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in the Swaps Stakes in a blazing 1:58 3/5 for the 1 1/4 miles; and 19 pounds to Silver Series, winner of the Ohio, American, and Hawthorne Derbys and third in the Travers.
Whiteley, Mrs. Gerry, Shoemaker, and Frank's son David, a successful trainer in his own right, met in the tunnel several hours before the race to discuss the situation and whether they should run or not. David said he didn't want any part of it and left. Mrs. Gerry, having learned from the Saratoga experience, this time wanted to scratch and wait for the Marlboro Cup two weeks later. Shoemaker had ridden in one of the early races and said he thought the track was too bad to take a chance. Whiteley, who wanted to scratch in the Whitney, said the horse was at the top of his game and ready to run. He knew he had Forego in the best shape he could possibly get him and felt he couldn't keep him that good for another two weeks. Whiteley was convinced Forego was ready for a big effort when the horse bit two people in the barn that morning. So, all day, fans waited for the inevitable announcement that Forego had been scratched. It never came.
I was extremely apprehensive like everyone else and hung out by Whiteley's barn, waiting to walk with him and Forego to the paddock. Forego emerged from the barn looking fantastic, his coat beautifully dappled, and it was apparent he was in the zone. The only question was the track, which still was listed as sloppy.
The fans had their doubts as well, making Forego the 9-5 favorite, his highest odds in more than two years. J. O. Tobin, who was bet down to 5-2, set most of the early pace along with Proud Birdie. They cut out swift fractions, with Forego in eighth, about 10 lengths back.
As they hit the far turn, all eyes were on Forego. Would he make his patented sweeping run or were we watching the end of an era? No one had any idea how he was handling the track, so we waited and hoped. Then it happened. In a flash, Forego kicked in and began picking off horses one by one with those magnificent strides, just as he had done so many times before. Track announcer Chic Anderson bellowed to the crowd, “He’s gonna run today, folks.”
That brought an eruption from the crowd, as they knew the old boy was back, circling the field way out in the middle of the track, where he made most of his winning moves. Even though he still had several lengths to make up, everyone knew there was no way he was getting beat on this day.
Yes, he ran on that day, folks, just like the Forego of old. He was still fourth at the eighth pole, but only a half-length off the new battling leaders Cinteelo, Silver Series, and Great Contractor. Forego was still well out in the middle of track, and it was obvious he had the others measured. He charged to the front and drew off to win by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:48 flat. I found myself screaming with everyone else. As he crossed the finish line, the goose bumps emerged in full force. Forego was back. The 1977 Woodward to this day remains one of the most emotional and satisfying races I've ever experienced.
But, as it turned out, Forego was back only for this one brief moment. His ankles caught up to him after the race and he was put away for the year. He came back the following June to defeat Dr. Patches, and then beat only one horse, finishing fifth, in the Suburban Handicap. His ankles had finally betrayed him. It was time to call it quits.
Looking back at Forego's career, it is amazing how consistently fast he came home in his races, despite his unsoundness and the massive weights he had to carry. In the Met Mile, Marlboro Cup, and Gulfstream Park Handicap, he closed his final quarter in :23 and change. In five other Grade 1 stakes he came home in :24 and change. In the Vosburgh and Woodward, he closed his final eighth in :11 and change, and :12 flat in the Carter and :12 2/5 in the aforementioned 1977 Woodward.
In all, he defeated eight champions or classic winners – Foolish Pleasure (Kentucky Derby winner and champion 2-year-old male), Honest Pleasure (champion 2-year-old male and winner of the Travers), Avatar (Belmont Stakes winner), Wajima (champion 3-year-old male and winner of the Travers), Dr. Patches (co-champion sprinter), J. O. Tobin (co-champion sprinter and champion 2-year-old in England), Master Derby (Preakness winner), and Summer Guest (Coaching Club American Oaks winner). His battles with Wajima in 1975 were epic, and it took a showdown victory in the 1 1/2-mile Woodward to nail down Horse of the Year honors.
I visited Forego with my wife shortly after his retirement when he was residing at John Ward's farm overlooking Keeneland. John told us he still loved the cheers and would start running around his paddock whenever he’d hear the roar of the crowd.
Forego was standing in the middle of his paddock grazing, paying little attention to us. In a feeble and seemingly moronic attempt to see if he did indeed react to the applause and to get a good photo of him, we decided: “What the heck, let's start clapping.” Well, it wasn’t exactly the sound of the Keeneland crowd during the races, but sure enough, Forego picked his head up and began running around his paddock, ultimately stopping by the fence where we were able to get great head shots and a few pats on the forehead.
Several other visits followed over the years at the Kentucky Horse Park, this time with our daughter.
Forego always had a larger-than-life presence and knew what he liked and didn't like. I can remember mornings at the barn when former trainer Eddie Hayward, who took care of Sherrill Ward’s barn when the trainer was ill, would come to visit carrying a brown paper bag filled with apples. One morning, he arrived when Forego was out grazing. The big horse took one look at Hayward, saw the bag, and dragged his hotwalker over to him. He knew Hayward meant apples. It was quite a sight seeing him polish off one apple after another while Hayward conversed with Mrs. Gerry, who visited the barn often.
It was after Forego was turned over to Whiteley in early 1976 that I became good friends with Frank, having only previously spoken to him on occasion, telling him how special Damascus was to me. During my first visit to Frank's barn, we were sitting on a tack box in the shedrow when a huge dark bay horse walked by, just as we were talking about Forego.
“There's ol’ Forego there,” Whiteley said. Well, I not only knew that it wasn’t Forego, I knew it was Ruffian’s brother Buckfinder, who was almost the same size and color as Forego, but not quite as big and massive. I didn't have a clue how to respond. Why would Whiteley make such a comment? I had to say something, so I replied, “That kinda looks like Buckfinder to me.” Whiteley shot back, “It is,” and then just smiled. He was testing me, and from then on we became great friends until the day he died. One of his last requests to assistant trainer Mike Bell was, “I want Steve to write my obituary.” That was one of the great honors of my career.
It seems as if people don't quite know where to rank Forego on the list of great horses, just as they are uncertain about other great geldings such as Kelso and John Henry.
I will say this: for all he had to overcome, for all the incredible feats he accomplished, and for all the heart-pounding thrills he provided, Forego was as unique a Thoroughbred as ever set foot on a racetrack. That uniqueness, combined with his extraordinary talent, made him, in my opinion, one of the truly great horses of all time. And that afternoon at Belmont Park when Forego came charging down the stretch for his final stakes victory will forever remain frozen in time as one of racing’s most special moments.