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A Foregone Conclusion : Even Under 137 Pounds, Victory Rarely Was in Doubt for Forego

April 20, 1993|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LEXINGTON, Ky. — In stalls across from one another, Forego and John Henry were lying down, enjoying a mid-afternoon snooze at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The geldings--two of the most famous horses who ever ran--were oblivious to the visitors who had come to their barn.

"They're spoiled," said Cathy Roby, one of their grooms.

Then someone opened a bag containing an apple and two bananas, and instantly Forego and John Henry were on their feet.

"John Henry loves apples and pizza," Roby said. "And Forego, he's the only horse I've ever heard of that eats bananas."

Forego is 23. At 17 hands--68 inches--and more than 1,200 pounds, he seems like two of the smallish John Henry, 18. They combined for 15 Eclipse awards, racing's highest honors, with Forego's eight including horse-of-the-year titles in 1974, '75 and '76. John Henry was horse of the year in 1981 and '84.

In 1974, Forego was the best handicap horse and the nation's champion sprinter. Best remembered for his races on turf, John Henry is the only two-time winner of the Santa Anita Handicap, a dirt race, and in 1981 he was voted best older horse on both dirt and turf.

The next-best horses in the Eclipse awards count are Secretariat and Affirmed, who won five apiece. In a highly arbitrary ranking of racing's 10 greatest horses, Whitney Tower once included Forego and excluded Secretariat.

"The fact remains that Secretariat was retired at the end of his 3-year-old career," Tower said. "He may well have been able to carry 137 pounds in the slop and beat younger horses. But nobody ever saw him do it. Forego did it."

The only time Secretariat and Forego competed, in 1973, Secretariat won his record-setting Kentucky Derby en route to a Triple Crown sweep. Forego, making his eighth start, all as a 3-year-old, bounced off the fence at the start of the far turn at Churchill Downs and finished fourth, beaten by 11 lengths.

When Forego was retired in 1978, having won 24 stakes and earned $1.9 million, he brought to an end an era when track racing secretaries would assign weights that they believed horses deserved, with no concern that the owners might seek other races to get lighter imposts.

For the 1976 Marlboro Cup, Belmont Park secretary Tommy Trotter assigned Forego 137 pounds.

"He had won the Woodward impressively, three weeks before, with 135 pounds," said Trotter, now a steward at the Keeneland track here. "I thought he should go up two pounds off of that. No, I didn't tell (trainer) Frank Whiteley about the 137. I just had the weights mimeographed and let him make the decision about running."

But it was the track condition, not the weight, that gave Whiteley doubts. In 47 previous starts, Forego had run only once on an off track, finishing third in the 1974 Marlboro, and although the rain had stopped before the 1976 race, the track was still going to be muddy.

The trainer was leaning toward scratching Forego, but three races before the Marlboro, Bill Shoemaker rode and told Whiteley that the running surface, while mushy, still had a good bottom.

Whiteley allowed Forego to run, and the tape of this performance is shown over and over at the Kentucky Horse Park's museum, not far from the horse who is still taking his bows.

Honest Pleasure, carrying 119 pounds, charged from the gate and took the lead, then methodically eliminated challengers at every pole. Forego was in eighth place going down the backstretch, and although he picked up a few horses on the far turn, he was still fifth, eight lengths back, at the head of the stretch.

Shoemaker, looking for the best part of the track to run on, had Forego so wide in the stretch that they were closer to the grandstand than the tote board.

"With a quarter-mile to go, I didn't think we'd be in the money," Shoemaker said. "I knew darn well I wasn't going to win. But then he dug in and started to roll. At the eighth pole, it still seemed impossible. At the sixteenth pole, I thought, 'Hey, just maybe he can get there.' "

Shoemaker showed Forego his whip, never hitting him. Honest Pleasure was not stopping, but Forego was gaining steadily. In the final jump, his nose was in front at the wire.

Only two horses--Whisk Broom II in 1913 and Exterminator in 1922--had carried more weight at 1 1/4 miles and won. When Shoemaker weighed in after the race, he looked like someone who could use help with his tack. At 95 pounds, he was carrying 42 pounds of lead and tack, the weight needed to total the 137 pounds Trotter had assigned.

Forego carried 130 pounds or more at a mile or farther on 17 occasions, and he won nine of those races. If an owner like Martha Gerry campaigned a horse under such weights nowadays, racing would give her the sportsmanship award and retire the trophy.

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