A son of Vaguely Noble, himself a champion lawn mower in Europe and later the sire of many top turf horses, Lemhi Gold had a pedigree that clearly suggested grass. Jones had arranged for the pedigree, sending Belle Marie, a daughter of Candy Spots, to Vaguely Noble in Kentucky in the spring of 1977. Jones owns a lumber business in Eugene, Ore. but spends some of his leisure time at a cabin in Idaho built on the banks of Lemhi Creek, near an old gold-mining claim. Hence Lemhi Gold.
The colt showed he was at home on dirt, winning the first start of his life on it at Santa Anita last year by 14 lengths. Off that, Barrera and Jones figured they had themselves a Kentucky Derby horse, but he bucked his shins in his second start and wasn't up to the '81 spring classics. He almost won the Jim Dandy on the dirt at Saratoga last year, getting beat a neck by Willow Hour. "He got shut off twice," Barrera says. "He should've won." A couple of weeks later, he did a flip in the starting gate before the Jerome Handicap at Belmont, injured his back and finished ninth. That was it for the year.
"He's such a free-spirited, extroverted horse that he sometimes hurts himself," says Jones.
The colt ran creditably in his first two races this year, both on the dirt at Santa Anita, but he began gaining national attention when Barrera put him on the grass there. He won three in a row, including April's San Juan Capistrano Handicap by seven lengths in just a fifth of a second off the 1�-mile turf course record of 2:45[2/5]. After coming in second in the Hollywood Invitational, he won the Sword Dancer Stakes on the Belmont turf in July; was fourth in the Whitney Stakes on the dirt (he leaped gazelle-like out of the gate and tore off part of a hoof); and then finished fourth in the Budweiser Million on the grass at Arlington. "A rough trip," Barrera says. "Lost a lot of ground."
Barrera is not only a consummate horseman but also is adept at picking the most favorable spots. After the Budweiser Million, that spot for Lemhi Gold appeared to be the Man o' War on the grass. His owner disagreed.
"I wanted to prove that this horse could run on the dirt," Jones said. "I felt he never had a proper chance to prove himself on the dirt. He'd had bad luck on it." Of course, proving that point in a race as important as the Marlboro Cup—a mile and a quarter without a cigarette—would considerably enhance his value as a stallion prospect. "I prevailed on Laz," Jones said.
The only problem, of course, was that the horse hadn't been asked to run in the race. John T. Landry, senior vice-president of marketing at Philip Morris and the originator of the race, and Pat O'Brien, a former New York racing official who oversees the Marlboro Cup for Philip Morris, didn't have Lemhi Gold on their original list. On Sept. 9, just nine days before the race, Barrera asked O'Brien why the colt hadn't been invited.
"He's a grass horse," O'Brien said. "I hadn't even considered him."
"Well, consider him," Laz said. "This horse can go both ways." New York Racing Secretary Lenny Hale evaluated the horse's past performances and recommended he join the field. Landry approved. Five days before the race. Hale released his weight assignments. They showed Perrault as the highweight, at 128 pounds, and Lemhi Gold as the low-weight (along with Fit to Fight, who later scratched), at 115. Barrera now felt he had a very good chance.
For days he had sensed he was on to something. On Sept. 9, Barrera had begun preparing the colt for the Marlboro. He decided to sharpen his speed, so he sent him out to work a fast five-eighths on the dirt. Lemhi Gold did it in :57[4/5] seconds, the fastest time of any horse at that distance that day, and then galloped the six furlongs in better than 1:10.