Wednesday, 27 March 2019 20:00

FOREGO... Last of the Great Handicap Legends

By Joseph Raucci | Winner's Circle

When the immortal Kelso was retired early in 1967, it was presumed that there would never be another one like him.  He had thrilled racing fans in a career that included  five consecutive Horse of the Year Titles.  He had eclipsed all of the great handicap stars of the past.  The list included the likes of Equipoise,  Discovery,  Exterminator,  Armed,  Round Table, and Seabiscuit.  The Royalty of the mid-sixties, Buckpasser, Dr Fager, and Damascus also demand recognition here. 

Twenty-two times mighty Kelso carried 130 or more pounds. These were weights that Racing Secretaries across the country assigned to the elite of the sport. They had earned through past performances the right, and also the disadvantage that gave the lesser horses an equal playing field. Twelve times Kelso prevailed under those conditions.

His greatest achievement may very well be winning the 1961  Brooklyn Handicap while carrying 136 pounds and  becoming only the third horse to take New York’s Handicap Triple. At the time this was considered the most challenging feat in the sport.  Would there ever be another Kelso? Racing fans would not have to wait long to find out.

It was the age of Secretariat.  In 1972 he began his run to Valhalla.   For the next two years he was the main event. Everyone knew his name.He became the first Triple Crown Champion in 25 years.  At age two and three he garnered Horse of the Year Honors.  The wonder horse sucked all the air out of the decade..  Or had he?

In a time when horse racing produced some of its greatest stars, a bay gelding with the name Forego appeared on the racing scene.  His was a star that would burn brightly for a very, very long time. 

Let’s take a brief look at his legendary career. Breeding paves the way to major success on the racetrack.  The bloodlines that ran through Forego are remarkable.  His sire, the Argentine Champion Forli, had the blood of Hyperion churning through his veins. On the dam side, it was that of Calumet’s great stud Bull Lea. This combination was about to create a thoroughbred masterpiece. 

Forego’s career started with little fanfare.  He made his debut as a three-year-old in 1973.  After a few decent starts, he showed enough progress with a game second in the Florida Derby to take a shot at America’s premier event for three-year-olds,  The Kentucky Derby.  He finished a well beaten fourth to the winner Secretariat. 

After the Derby his conditioner Hall of Fame Trainer Sherrill Ward decided on Heliodoro Gustines as his regular rider.  Known as one of the best jockeys on the grass in the country, it may be thought of as an odd mix.  Forego in his fifty-seven starts never raced on that surface.  That being said,  Ward had made a wise decision.   For the next three years the combination of the two raced into the history books.

Forego began to mature that summer of 1973. With that came size. He became a monster of horseflesh, standing at a remarkable seventeen hands. Late in the season he took a couple of stake races at Aqueduct. Ward made the decision to take the Big Guy to south Florida and open his four-year-old campaign there. He took in succession three of the Sunshine States most important events for older horses. Among them were the Widener and Gulfstream Park Handicaps. Forego was on his way. 

It was back to New York for the rich Handicap Schedule. Racing Secretary Kenny Noe didn’t take long to let Ward know how he felt about the Big Gelding.  He assigned 134 pounds as Forego’s weight  load for the upcoming Metropolitan Mile.  As was the case with Kelso, it was the first of twenty-two times that he would be burdened with weights of 130 pounds and more.   Forego handled the impost well.   He finished a strong second, a couple of lengths  behind a lightly regarded Arbee’s Boy who was spotted twenty-two pounds of weight in the race. He went on to take the Brooklyn Handicap. Later that fall he took his first of four consecutive Woodward Handicaps, a major stop on the American Racing Scene. Next he added the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup. With that score, Forego cemented his first of three consecutive Horse of the Year honors.

1975 brought more of the same. It was pretty much a replay of the previous season.  The year 1976 would catapult Forego into the Pantheon of Champions. One of the premier trainers in horse racing, Frank Whiteley who navigated the careers of both Damascus and the ill-fated Ruffian, took charge of Forego due to the ailing health of Sherrill Ward. Whiteley brought along the immensely talented Bill Shoemaker to pilot the Big Horse. In his six grade-one appearances Forego carried weights of no less than 130 pounds. In four of them the number was staggering. Twice it was 134.  He carried the dimunitive Shoemaker and 30 odd pounds of  lead weight for a total of 135 when he took his third Woodward. If that wasn’t enough, his next race would be one for the ages. For the important Marlboro Cup, the number rose to 137. No horse had carried this much weight in a major event in decades. 

 Get this.. Forego was so good that he was spotting that year’s Travers Stakes Winner Honest Pleasure eighteen pounds. The track came up sloppy. Honest Pleasure took an early lead. The champ got off to a slow start. He was in the back of the pack until the field made their way to the top of stretch. Forego began to make his move. Stride after massive stride he made up ground. At the eighth pole it seemed an impossibility that he would overtake the leader.  He would not be denied. The great Shoemaker urged him on. He passed horses like they were standing still. He was able to close the gap and overtake Honest Pleasure at the wire. Forego had just put on one of the greatest performances in the history of the sport. The race is available to all on YouTube. If you are a racing fan and can spare a couple of minutes, please do yourself a favor and watch the film of the race.  It is one that defies reality. With his Marlboro Cup victory, Forego was honored with the last of three Horse of the Year Trophies. 

He did come back for one last campaign. At the age of seven he still had fire in his  belly.  In a shortened season he won two major events. In a losing effort in The Suburban, he carried a massive load of 138 pounds.  This was the year of Seattle Slew. He was named Horse of the Year. Forego settled for best Handicap Horse that last season. 

The day of the great  Handicap Champions was coming to an end. Triple Crown Winners Seattle Slew, then Affirmed, and in the same decade the great Spectacular Bid all raced with high weights as four-year-olds. After Bid there was no stomach for it. Shorter campaigns, early retirement, and the mollycoddling of thoroughbreeds due to their immense stud value has put an end to  Handicap Racing as we knew it. There will never be another Kelso or Forego to cheer on year after year as they got better with age as a great Bordeaux does.  The more weight they carried,  the more we loved them. As history tells us,  nothing remains the same. In this case, it is a sad truth.

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