Fabulous Forego: Superstar of the Handicap Division

Legends
Hall of Famer Forego won the Woodward Stakes in four consecutive years, including this victory in 1975. (BloodHorse Library)

A bank of menacing grey clouds rolled low over the barns at Belmont Park the morning of Oct. 2, 1976. A steady rain began to pelt the Long Island track.

It was bad news for trainer Frank Whiteley. In 47 previous starts, his champion Forego had run only once on an off-track, finishing third.

But a few days earlier when Whiteley heard from Tommy Trotter, it was worse news. The Belmont’s racing secretary slapped his horse with a career high 137-pound impost. Trotter based his decision on Forego’s impressive victory in the Woodward Stakes two weeks earlier while hefting 135 pounds.

By mid-afternoon Whiteley, who also trained the ill-fated Ruffian, was leaning toward scratching Forego from the Marlboro Cup, fearing the combination of mud and weight could injure his 6-year old star. As talented as the gelding was, Forego was also one of the most unsound horses in racing. Sesamoid problems plagued him throughout his career, later came splints, suspensory trouble and calcium deposits. It was said that Forego ran on one good leg, his left hind.

Three races before the Marlboro Cup, Whiteley huddled with Bill Shoemaker. The legendary rider relayed the fact that the running surface, while slick and soupy, still had a good bottom. His proud head high, his ears pricked, Forego stepped into the silver light that afternoon and went to post.

Tall (17.1 hands), enormous (more than 1200 pounds) and super strong, Forego was amazingly light on his feet. His most formidable rival in the Marlboro was a dead fit Honest Pleasure. Honest Pleasure was the 2-year-old champion of 1975 and the 1976 Travers Stakes winner, and Forego spotted his 3-year-old rival 18 pounds.

More than 31,000 fans braved the rain. They got a race for the ages. Honest Pleasure shot out of the gate leading the field throughout the mile and a quarter race across a lake of slop. At the top of the stretch Honest Pleasure was comfortably in command. Forego languished in sixth.

Then Forego did the impossible. Racing in the yellow-and-black silks of Lazy F Ranch, Shoemaker maneuvered the towering bay horse out to the middle of track, closer to the grandstand than the tote board. With ever-lengthening strides Forego picked off his rivals, but was still four lengths back of Honest Pleasure at the eighth pole. Eyeball to eyeball, the duo slugged it out in the final fifty yards. His large head lifting and dipping in the final strides, Forego got up to win by a head. He had made up ten lengths in the stretch and at 2:00 flat he missed the track record by a fifth of a second. It would be celebrated as one of the most sensational stretch drives in racing history.

"When we were nearing the top of the stretch I didn't think Forego would be in the money,” Shoemaker recalled later. “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. It was the greatest race I’ve ever been in or seen.”

At 95 pounds, Shoemaker was carrying 42 pounds of lead and tack. Legendary CBS broadcaster Jack Whittaker ranked the Marlboro second only to Secretariat’s masterpiece in the Belmont.

“I remember watching Shoe weighing in,” Whittaker said. “He looked like he was carrying almost twice his own weight! It was one of those days I was glad I was there.”

A son of Argentine champion Forli, Forego was one of the great American weight carriers of all time. The thinking of racing secretaries back then was simple: by assigning top-flight horses higher and higher weights the race would be more competitive. In the early 20th century, there was Exterminator, beloved Old Bones. By 1924 at age 9 he had scored 24 career victories lugging 130 pounds. A decade before Forego, it was the great Kelso with all that unforgiving lead in his saddlebag.  He carried 130 pounds or more on 24 occasions, winning 13, placing in five times, and finishing third once.

Forego winning the 1974 Vosburgh Handicap. (Bob Coglianese/BloodHorse Library)

Legs heavily bandaged, Forego battled race after race on one sound leg. He ran from six to sixteen furlongs. He carried as much as 138 pounds, and carried 130 pounds or more in 24 stakes, all of them graded. Thundering by his rivals in mid-stretch with a devastating move, Forego had the crowd in a frenzy as he stormed home, as he usually did, on the far outside. Horse of the Year for three consecutive years and Champion Handicapper for four, Forego clearly was one of the all-time stars of the handicap division of the 20th century.

Mrs. Martha Farish Gerry first saw Forego as a foal standing in a pasture at Claiborne Farm in the spring of 1970. All legs, he skittered around his dam Lady Golconda. There was little evidence that spring day that he would master the mechanics of running, so much so he would one day dominate the best of three generations of foals sent against him.

Gerry was the daughter of oil executive William Farish and the former Libbie Rice, whose family founded Rice University. Farish owned a farm in Florida, where he hunted quail, and a ranch in Texas he called the Lazy F Ranch. It would become the name of Gerry’s racing operation.

Meanwhile, Lazy F Ranch's husky, bay colt was slow to mature, already suffering from a bad ankle that plagued him his whole life. He was also the most ill-mannered boarder in the barn of his original trainer Sherrill Ward.  A voracious eater of hay and oats, Forego also chomped on fingers and arms.

Frank Whiteley, Forego, jockey Heliodoro Gustines and Martha Gerry. (BloodHorse Library)

“He was very hard to handle,” noted Gerry. “He was studdish. We decided if he was to be any of any account at all he ought to be gelded.”

It worked wonders. Forego didn’t race as a 2-year old, but by the time he showed up at Hialeah Park, he had muscled up and possessed an improving racing mind. In his first race on Jan. 17, 1973 he finished fourth. In May in the 1973 Kentucky Derby he was making a bold move on the far turn when Our Native bounced him off the rail, but Forego still took fourth, beaten eleven lengths by Secretariat. The horse became really good that fall.

For the next five years, regardless of the distance or weight, Forego’s will to win drove him to victory time after time. 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).

At age 7, Forego repeated his victory in the 1977 Metropolitan Handicap and won his fourth consecutive Woodward (1974-77). “Forego Forever" tee shirts were popular among fans, and Forego won four times in seven starts, finishing second twice and earning $267,740. He also was named Champion Handicapper for the fourth time.

The grand warrior was retired after running fifth in the 1978 Suburban Stakes. Calcium deposits were found on his sesamoids, and further races could have shattered his ankles. On July 17, 1978, the BloodHorse carried the announcement, which included the following tribute to the great horse:

"There is a quality that manifests itself in stress of competition, in a market, a game, or a war. It is comprised of determination, and courage, and gallantry. It is called valor. It commands the respect of all, wherever found, in friend or foe, man or horse. Forego had it."

In September 1978, the great gelding said farewell to his fans in New York by leading the post parade for the Marlboro Cup, in which Triple Crown champions Affirmed and Seattle Slew were meeting for the first time. He was retired to John T. Ward Stable in Lexington.

Forego moved to the Kentucky Horse Park in 1979 where he was a featured attraction at the Kentucky Hall of Champions for many years. In September 1997 Forego was humanely put down after breaking his long pastern bone in his left hind leg in his paddock. He is buried next to Rambling Willie at the Hall of Champions. Forego was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1979. In the 1999 list of the top 100 U. S. Thoroughbreds of the 20th century by BloodHorse, Forego ranks eighth.

Fun Facts

  • While in residence at Kentucky Horse Park, Forego’s favorite treat was bananas.
  • In his last two Woodward victories, Forego gave a stunning total of 365 pounds to his opposition.
  • Chronic arthritis in his hip led Sherrill Ward to retire in 1975, turning over training of Forego to Frank Whiteley, who became a Hall of Fame trainer, conditioning Tom Rolfe and Damascus, as well as Ruffian and Forego.
  • Forego was voted for eight Eclipse Awards including Horse of the Year, Champion Handicap Horse and Champion Sprinter.
  • Forego’s three Horse of the Year titles (1974, 1975, 1976) are topped only by Kelso’s five in succession in the 1960s.

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