Redemption in the Woodward

On Saturday at Saratoga, the main event, the Grade I Woodward, will be preceded by the Grade I Forego, named for the horse who won the Woodward for four consecutive years (1974 – 1977) and who was named Horse of the Year in the first three of those years.

That the Forego and the Woodward are on the same day is especially fitting, given the role that the 1977 Woodward played in re-establishing Forego’s reputation. 1977 was not such a great year for the seven-year-old gelding; though he began the year with three wins, he then went on a three-race losing streak, his most ignominious showing coming in the Whitney that summer at Saratoga. Beaten eleven lengths for second in the Brooklyn Handicap, Forego next started in the Whitney, spurring New York Times writer James Tuite to open his preview article on the race this way:

Serious students of eohippic form will get a rare chance to play “Twenty Questions” tomorrow when this bucolic horsepark stages the 50th version of the Whitney Handicap.

The big question, of course, is whether the mighty Forego will strike out again. Beaten twice in a row under crushing weights of 138 and 137 pounds, the three-time horse-of-the-year dropped another pound but faces a mighty effort to restore his waning stature. (“Forego”)

Twenty-four hours later, after Forego finished last over a sloppy track, the same author led his recap story with, “Mighty Forego was buried in the mud of Saratoga today.” The coverage of that loss in the Whitney took on a nearly apocalyptic tone, with writers gingerly broaching the possibility that Forego’s monumental career might be over; though the discussions often emphasized the weights Forego was assigned, some observers pointed out that the losses might be due to more than the weight, that Forego might, in fact, have reached the end. Even while noting that the winner of the Whitney, Nearly on Time, carried 103 pounds to Forego’s 136, Tuite acknowledges the speculation that Forego was done:

There has been speculation that Forego is through as a superhorse, a view not
shared by his trainer, Frank Whitely. “Maybe he isn’t up to his best right
now,” said Whitely, “but he hates hot weather. He should improve as the
weather gets cooler.” (“Nearly on Time”)

Despite Whitely’s confidence, Tuite wrote elegaically of the bay gelding, one of several writers who compared the powerful horse to major sports stars:

…many of the 28,819 fans who lined the saddling ring accorded [Forego] the same kind of tribute that Joe DiMaggio gets at old-timer games or Joe Louis gets when he waves to the crowd at a championship fight. They seemed to sense the end of the road.

Several days after the Whitney, Joseph Durso in the Times went beyond comparing Forego to human celebrities and suggesting retirement, invoking instead a higher power (and the possibility of resurrection?!) in a “Sports of The Times” piece entitled “Forgive Them, Forego,” an unmistakable allusion to Jesus’ last words. Durso re-capped Forego’s disappointing year in a piece featuring Jimmy the Greek, and his Biblical references (the second section of the piece is entitled “The Last Shall Be First”) seem curiously at odds (pun intended) with the focus on handicapping, setting odds, and assigning weights that is the thrust of the piece, particularly as the Greek seems a little more sanguine about Forego’s future than does his interlocutor, questioning, as did so many others, the weights under which the horse was forced to run.

The sepulchral reflection continued in William Leggett’s August 15th piece in Sports Illustrated, the unfortunately named “A Race He Should’ve Foregone.” While noting that the race was the first in 47 tries that Forego failed to hit the board (lifetime, he ran 57 races and finished out of the money only seven times), Leggett joins those who surmise that it’s more than the weight that’s preventing Forego from winning:

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 goquickly, victimized by age, infirmities, and high weights.

At the time the Whitney was run, Forego had banked $1,818,957, and nearly every article mentions how close he is to becoming the first horse to earn $2 million. Leggett is no different, but suggests in his closing that memories are more important that money:

Each race could be his last, and one more defeat like the one he sustained in the Whitney would demean him. Mrs. Gerry [Forego’s owner] 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.

Racing fans in August 1977 must have thought that they had seen the last of the great horse, despite his connections’ assertions to the contrary; had blogs and comment boards existed then, one can only imagine the flurry—the deluge—of calls for the horse to be retired before he was injured. I mean, really, hadn’t the horse made it clear that he didn’t want to race anymore?

Fortunately, Gerry and Whitely had other ideas.

Virtually up until post time of the Woodward at Belmont on September 17th, Gerry and Whitely didn’t know what to do with their horse. His impost had been reduced to 133 pounds after his three straight losses, but he still carried at least twelve and up twenty-five more pounds more than the other horses, and the track was as muddy as it had been for the Whitney in Saratoga. Michael Katz in the New York Times reported that jockey Willie Shoemaker, after riding over the track earlier in the card, recommended that Forego be scratched. Whitely made the call to run, and as Katz opened his story on the race, “There is joy in Mudville. Mighty Forego did not strike out.”

Even Leggett, in Sports Illustrated, had to admit that he was back: “Forego is Forego again, and what racing fan can ask for anything more?” Leggett includes in his article that in the thirteen stakes races up to and including the Woodward, Forego “conceded a total of 2,057 pounds to his opponents.”

The Woodward was Forego’s last Grade I, and it wasn’t enough to carry him to Horse of the Year honors for the fourth consecutive year; that title went to Seattle Slew, with Forego taking home the award for Outstanding Older Male Horse. He raced three more times before he was retired, missing the $2 million mark in earnings by a measly $61,403. He lived first at the John T. Ward Stable in Lexington, then moved to the Kentucky Horse Park in 1981, where he resided for sixteen years. Forego was put down after breaking a leg in his paddock in 1997, and he’s buried at the Park.

At Saratoga today, the New York Racing Association will officially recognize Forego’s greatness in the ninth, his eponymous, race; as the horses go to the post for the Woodward, though, stop for a minute, and remember the horse who won the race four years in a row, and who in his final Woodward silenced the naysayers and reclaimed his reputation.

You can see Forego’s four Woodward wins here.

Posting will be light here over the next few days as today, I head out to Flushing Meadows for my annual trip to the U.S. Open. The Labor Day weekend pilgrimage is one I’ve made for a decade, and who knew when I got my tickets months ago that Curlin would be racing at the Spa on the same day? Heading back to Saratoga to close out the meet tomorrow, so back here on Monday, if not before.

Sources:

Durso, Joseph. “Forgive Them, Forego.” New York Times. 11 Aug. 1977. 29 Aug. 2008.

Katz, Michael. “Forego Conquers the Mud And 9 Foes in Woodward.” New York Times. 18 Sept. 1977. 29 Aug. 2008.

Leggett, William. “A Race He Should’ve Foregone.” SIVault. 15 Aug. 1977. 29 Aug. 2008.

Leggett, William. “Here’s Mud In Your Eye!” SIVault. 26 Sept. 1977. 29 Aug. 2008.

Tuite, James. “Forego Poses Biggest Question for 50th Whitney at Saratoga Today.” New York Times. 6 Aug. 1977. 29 Aug. 2008.

Tuite, James. “Nearly on Time Wins Whitney As Forego Trails 7-Horse Field.” New York Times. 7 Aug. 1977. 29 Aug. 2008.

4 thoughts on “Redemption in the Woodward

  1. We are most grateful for another distinctive look at the history of the great game. Forego support was irresistible and seductive. Fans bet more than they planned, took short prices, ignored overlaid opponents, and rooted him home — every time. The theme of the Times articles was not uncommon. Holding losing tickets on Forego — at 1/5 in the Suburban, at 3-5 in the Brooklyn, at 4-5 in the Whitney — left a bit of a hangover. It was easy to wonder, “Why are we doing this, and when will we stop?” To illustrate the point: Forego was 9/5 favorite to win the 1977 Woodward despite some mighty good reasons that made you think it a meager reward for your generous loyalty.Whitely and Forego’s other connections must have caught the fever a bit, too. Saratoga was an odd place to see Forego. Except for a third-place finish in a 7-furlong allowance at age 3, he had never raced there. Belmont wet then was a good bit like Belmont wet now. But in 1977, the mud at Saratoga was distinctly different from the mud at Belmont: stickier and heavier, it really worked against the action of the long-striding, high-speed cruiser. Forego didn’t like it wet to begin with — he always looked like he hated being out in the rain — but the Saratoga slop was an impossible assignment.The Woodward shines light upon many interesting facets of the great champion. Each victory was of a character and of a moment that were not merely testaments to his greatness, they were a unifying and unforgettable thrill for every loyal backer in the stands.The 1974 Woodward was — with the 1975 edition — a two-turn event, run at the modern Belmont Stakes course and distance. Forego had lost five of his last six, but the fifth loss, in the sloppy-track Marlboro Cup, was the only time in his final thirty-seven starts that he did not go off the favorite. The victory over ten opponents came at the expense of Arbees Boy, who ran magnificently under the even-weights condition. The victory triggered a streak of six straight wins in a sequence that elicited the first comparisons to Dr. Fager. From the Woodward to Aqueduct, from Aqueduct to Hialeah to commence the 1975 season, and from Hialeah to Aqueduct, Forego beat eleven opponents at 7 furlongs, beat 7 at two miles, beat 7 at 9 furlongs, beat 8 at a mile-and-a-quarter, and 9 at 7 furlongs.The 1975 Woodward came on the heels of consecutive defeats to the regrettably forgotten 1975 Travers champion Wajima. Wajima carried even weight on the scale vs. the five-year-old Forego, but could only manage a very brave, very game second to match his Labor Day triumph in the Governor (1:47.1) and his 10-furlong, one-turn victory in the Marlboro twelve days later (2:00).The 1976 Woodward — changed to handicap conditions like the 1977 edition — was run as a 9-furlong, one-turn contest out of the Belmont chute. Six furlongs in 1:09.1 seemed a good setup for closers, but only Forego got near the very tough, seriously speedy 3-year-old pacesetters: Travers Champion Honest Pleasure, Dance Spell — second in the Jim Dandy and third in the Travers — and Soy Numero Uno. The winner spotted weight to all, including Hatchet Man, who had beaten him four weeks earlier in the Haskell Handicap at 10 furlongs. The Monmouth Park defeat was, we now see, the bad race-good race pattern for his Woodward career. The Woodward was Forego’s 47th start, but the first with Shoemaker in the irons, starting a pairing that would continue to the swan song on a July 4, 1978, a day as wet as it was cold. (The Belmont grandstand could have been used to condition alpine expeditions in those days.) Rooting for Forego was a thrill that an ever-diminishing crowd of racing veterans can cherish. His races were compelling in so many ways: variety in pace, distance; large and talented fields; peculiarly precocious 3-year-old fall campaigners; the anachronism of high weight; the odd absence of trouble lines for most of the runners; the short periods when Forego was actually in front; and last but not least: a full grandstand of devoted and exhilarated fans yelling their champion home despite the weight, despite a recent loss, despite the underlaid prices, despite never having him win “like an odds-on horse should win.” Forego’s career, like so many of the rides by Gustines and Shoemaker, was perfectly timed. It differed from other careers in that he didn’t really have a two-season rival. It differed from the last twenty years in that he raced in front of a live audience at Aqueduct and Belmont. He was part of the great crescendo of avid race-fan participation that sounds today like an improbable echo. He stood apart, did Forego, staying in Queens and letting the best come to him. A Saturday rooting home Forego was something you could do Spring, Summer and Fall for years. It is something I will never forget.

  2. Thanks, everyone, for the comments, and to TJ Connick for the terrific history lesson. E-mail me if you ever want to guest blog…There’s a great Mike Venezia quote in one of those Times articles about how Saratoga mud is different from Belmont mud…Connick, did you write that article?

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