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They’re running the Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park this Fourth of July. It is a classic that has been staged almost every year since 1884. Some of the great names in racing have worn its crown: Dr Fager, Buckpasser, Skip Away, Kelso (twice) and the mighty Forego.
I remember Forego vividly. It was 1976. I was standing in the Belmont shedrow outside Frank Whiteley’s barn watching the giant bay gelding by Forli get a new set of steel shoes from a big-boned man, name of Jarbo. Forego was the biggest kid on the block and he had a temper. Jarbo almost matched him in size. The low morning sun bounced off the leather apron as the farrier went about his task, carefully, his large hands working the hammer and nails. All the other kids wore aluminum shoes, but not Forego. He would have shredded them in a country minute.
Whiteley, his third trainer, was a man of few words, crabby at times just like his horse. Forego had bad legs and carried enormous weight on his back, saddle cloths bulging with lead, so in the eyes of the racing authorities the others would at least have a fighting chance. It looked like a formula for disaster. But time after time Forego proved his mettle. He was Horse of the Year from 1974 through 1976, and almost as popular in his way as Secretariat, except that he would bite you in a nanosecond if you got too close. His record as a 4-year-old is unmatched for its versatility. In addition to Horse of the Year, he was Champion Handicap Horse and Champion Sprinter. He retired with a record of 34 wins from 57 starts.
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As his reputation grew, he became almost strictly a New York horse, giving the fans continuity as he raced into his eighth year. And he was as tough as Jarbo’s nails. “They were good to him. They loved him.” That was his trainer talking. “He always give ‘em a good performance, give ‘em their money’s worth.”
The broadcaster Heywood Hale Broun said, “New Yorkers liked that idea of the great rush at the end. Forego was the one who did things dramatically. The glamour of handicap racing arises from that old racing saying that weight would stop a freight train and people would come out to see whether, in fact, a freight train like Forego could be stopped.”
What follows are interviews I did with owner Martha Gerry, jockey Bill Shoemaker, trainer Whiteley and Woodie Broun for a profile that appeared on the CBS News program “Sunday Morning.” Most of their comments from my transcripts are being seen for the first time. They are all deceased.
The year was 1997. I went down to visit Whiteley in Camden, S.C., where he was living in retirement on his farm. I asked him what it was like to train this huge gelding who ran on matchstick legs. “He was pretty ornery … He’d actually hurt you when he got real fit and if he had a chance he would … but he must have had a big heart because he run on courage – courage and heart.” And what was the talk like on the backside? “They wondered about him, when he was going to break down.”
Trainer Frank Whiteley and owner Martha Gerry worried about the hefty imposts Forego carried
Whiteley was in a constant fuss with the racing secretaries, who kept piling weight on his star’s back. “I resented it but there was not a whole lot I could say. If I wanted to run, I had to carry it.” So, he devised a homegrown formula for the leg problems: cold water on the legs for long stretches of time. “He did not like it. He had the hose on him for many an hour. Used to run three hoses on him sometimes on three bad legs.” Wags used to call it “Whiteley’s Puddle.”
I asked him what his biggest fear was. “Every time I run him … having to haul him off in the horse ambulance.”
Whiteley was no stranger to tragedy. He was the trainer of Ruffian, the “sweetheart of America” who, in 1975, snapped her leg in a celebrated match race at Belmont and was later euthanized. Shortly thereafter, he was tapped to be Forego’s boss.
“A lot of trainers stand them in ice water, but Frank thought the running water was better. But he could carry the weight, which just doesn’t happen anymore.” That was owner Martha Gerry, who bred Forego in the name of her Lazy F Ranch.
She was talking about weights of up to 138 pounds that Forego had on his back. His opponents might carry 110. “He’d kick up a fuss, hated his head to be fooled with. But once he started that walk over to the paddock, he was Mr. Dignity. He kind of knew he was going to perform.”
Forego carried 134 pounds to victory in the 1975 Suburban. Two years later he carried 138, losing by a neck
This is Whiteley: “He’d stop and look at people in the paddock at Belmont, too, walk around the saddle enclosure, stop and look at ‘em.” Not many horses do that? “He eyeballed his competition, too.” How’d he do that? “He just looked them in the eye.” Then the old trainer had a good laugh at the memory. “Unlike other great horses, he was not graceful or beautiful, he was all muscle, rather like some giant, old steam engine mounted on bicycle wheels.” That was Heywood Hale Broun’s memory.
And what about the rider? Whiteley thought he was just about perfect. “Shoemaker fit him like a glove. He was small and he looked like a fly sitting up there on him. Most jockeys like to have the smallest saddle they can get due to the weight. But he was so light he had a big saddle, loaded with lead.” He needed a lot of lead. Shoemaker weighed less than 100 pounds.
“Forego was about 17 hands high, the biggest horse I think I ever rode in my life and a fun horse to ride.” This is Bill Shoemaker. “It was kind of hard for me to get up on him. Frank had to lift me a foot and then I could kind of help pull myself up on him.” Was he aggressive, do you remember? “No, he was nice. He’d lope along behind, depending on the speed of the race. Once you got him running, you wanted to keep him going. I’d try to keep him in the clear on the outside. I’d kind of chirp to him or hit him once or shake the stick at him. And he really knew what to do.”
Bill Shoemaker, with trainer Whiteley, rode Forego in his final 11 career starts
And that was the formula for success in perhaps his most memorable race, the 1976 Marlboro Cup. He carried 137 pounds. Forego’s connections weren’t so sure he should run that day. They approached Whiteley that morning. “Mrs. Gerry and Shoemaker tried to talk me out of running him. The track was bad and they had all that weight. They were afraid something would happen to him. I told them there was no way I could keep him cooped up much longer. I was going to run him.”
“The track was muddy or sloppy, I think, that day,” recalled Shoemaker, “and I was back quite a ways off him (Honest Pleasure, that year’s record-setting winner of the “Midsummer Derby,” the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.) Then I took him to the outside. And turning for home I didn’t think I had a chance to win it.”
I was standing at a camera position near the finish line and saw this small John Wayne-like figure, with his saddle bags bursting, moving farther and farther off the rail.
“And old Forego he just kept digging and digging and digging” – this is Shoemaker again – “and I was way on the outside and he (Honest Pleasure) was way down on the inside. And when we hit the wire, I didn’t know whether we caught him or not, we were so far apart.”
Heywood Hale Broun watched in awe. “I was standing with Frank Wright, we were part of the CBS broadcast team, and I said, ‘He can’t do it,’ and Frank said, ‘He just did.'” Whiteley was elated: “He knew where the wire was. He sure knew where the wire was.” (Video of the Marlboro Cup)
As an anti-climax, there was a bit of humor amidst all the celebration. “The saddle and the lead pad, I think it weighed more than I did,” Shoemaker offered. “Frank said, ‘When you take your saddle off, fall down on your knees and show the handicapper he’s got too much weight on this horse.’ I didn’t have to fake it. It took me down to the ground anyway.”
Forego had created a dramatic moment to remember. But the afterglow faded quickly for Frank Whiteley. His star pupil was demanding his attention. “The day he win the Marlboro he bit two guys (stablehands). He did. I had to send one to the infirmary. Put another one in there and he bit him too.”
E.S “Bud” Lamoreaux III is the former Executive Producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He won four Eclipse Awards for his backstretch profiles.