Since it opened in 1864, the Saratoga racecourse has been known as the graveyard of favorites. Upset handed Man o' War his lone defeat there in the Sanford Stakes of 1919; Jim Dandy sloshed through the mud at 100 to 1 to beat Gallant Fox in the 1930 Travers; and only four years ago a horse virtually unknown outside his own stable, Onion, ran rings around Secretariat in the Whitney Stakes. Last Saturday, Saratoga added to its legend, and late that night it was easy to imagine witches and warlocks cackling as they inscribed another commemorative plaque: Forego, age 7, ran worst race of life in 1977 Whitney, finishing last in field of seven by 18 lengths. Beaten by a 3-year-old.
A crowd of 28,819 braved fog, then mist, then rain, to watch Forego try to carry 136 pounds over a sloppy Saratoga track against a group of runners that are hardly household names. The six other horses in the field had been to the post 250 times and won only seven U.S. stakes races. Forego had accounted for 23 all by himself. But Forego was entering the Whitney following two losses in a row, during which he had carried high—perhaps excessive—weights. Early in July, after winning his first three 1977 outings, Forego finished second in the Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park under 138 pounds; three weeks later he lost in the Brooklyn while lugging 137.
Although Forego was second in the Brooklyn, the tough old gelding got himself whipped by 11 lengths, easily the worst defeat of his career. True, he had lost by as wide a margin in the 1973 Kentucky Derby, which was won by Secretariat, but in that race he had brushed against the rail on his way to ending up fourth, a solid excuse for finishing so far behind a great champion.
But Forego's Whitney loss was far worse than his defeat in the Brooklyn. When the gate opened, Nearly On Time, garnished with 103 pounds, including Steve Cauthen, skipped to the lead and rolled merrily along. At the top of the stretch Cauthen was five lengths in front, and the remarkable 17-year-old, who was in the process of winning his record 300th race in New York this year, could have ridden backward the rest of the way and still won.
Willie Shoemaker had Forego away from the starting gate alertly enough, but the horse settled back into seventh place and never budged. At no time did it look as if he was going to launch a challenge—or even drive for a piece of the purse. It was the first time in 47 races that he failed to bring back a hunk of the action.
Ninety minutes after the race, LeRoy Jolley stood under an elm on the back-stretch, his trousers caked with mud from the winner's circle, and watched Nearly On Time cool out.
"This is a good colt," the trainer said. "As a 2-year-old he seemed to need five weeks between races to perform well, and that kept him out of the Triple Crown. But our patience with him has paid off [so far Nearly On Time has earned $169,352], and there isn't much doubt that getting 33 pounds from Forego helped. But the Forego we beat today was not the real Forego. I know that because I've run against him enough. The real Forego doesn't finish last."
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 clich�s 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 go quickly, victimized by age, infirmities and high weights.
For a long time Forego's trainer, Frank Whiteley Jr., has been complaining about the weights New York Racing Secretary Tommy Trotter has been slapping on his horse, yet until the last two races those weights brought Forego and his opponents extremely close together. In the 1977 Suburban Handicap, Forego carried 138 pounds and Quiet Little Table toted 114. Winner: Quiet Little Table by a neck. 1977 Nassau County Handicap—Forego 136, Co Host 110. Winner: Forego by half a length. 1977 Metropolitan Handicap—Forego 133, Co Host 111. Winner: Forego by two lengths. 1976 Marlboro Cup—Forego 137, Honest Pleasure 119. Winner: Forego by a head. 1976 Woodward Handicap—Forego 135, Dance Spell 115, Honest Pleasure 121. Winner: Forego by 1� lengths, with Dance Spell and Honest Pleasure in a dead heat for second.
Many experts wondered why Whiteley started Forego in the wet Whitney. On the morning of the race, Martha Gerry, the gelding's owner, was asked if he would start. "I doubt it very much," she said. "Not on a track like that." But Mrs. Gerry had wanted Forego to run at Saratoga; the fans there, she said, could then see the horse and see that his last race was just too bad to be true. So she and Whiteley decided to let Forego go, and their decision backfired disastrously. Now Forego will have to find his old form in a hurry if he is to become a four-time Horse of the Year and the first $2 million winner. He has won $1,818,957.