I was lucky, fortunate, to have grown up in a golden age of horse racing. Raised two blocks from Aqueduct Racetrack in South Queens, my buddies and I could hear the crowd roar every day as we played Wiffle Ball in the driveway. Every decade has it legends. But I had Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar and Ruffian in my backyard.
My family, a large yet tight-knit one, was scattered across South Queens, but all within walking distance. And every Saturday my dad, uncles and cousins would make our way over to the Big A. "Meet you at the sixteenth pole, first level."
We enjoyed the game, the camaraderie and the nuances that made the sport special. Be it maiden claimers or Grade 1 stakes, when the gate opened it was electric. But the champions of that era kept us coming back.
In my mind the 1970s take a backseat to no other decade in racing. The history is rich and time has done little to erode its greatness. Every one had a favorite Thoroughbred back then. With three Triple Crown winners and a star-studded supporting cast the choices were endless. For me, it was Forego.
He was a giant. Freakishly so. A physical, towering presence who stood over 17 hands. Throughout his racing career his size was thought to be a liability, as he suffered from chronic ankle inflammation as well as arthritic joints. A warrior, the oversized gelding fought through these various ailments, as well as a collection of worthy rivals to become a three-time Horse of the Year. During that magical run he proved to be durable and just as versatile, with victories ranging from 7 furlongs to 2 miles.
Speed ruled the game then as it always has. Big Red, Slew, Ruffian were either on the lead or pressing the pace. Not Forego. Notoriously slow from the gate he could always be found lumbering at the back of the pack. This patient style endeared him to his fans as they waited for him to unleash his patented furious rally time and time again. Stomach-churning yes, but always worth the wait.
The racing secretaries of that time period were not as intimidated as most are today. They took the word handicap literally, forcing Forego to routinely carry weights unheard of in this day and age. A similar act today would lead the top handlers to explore other options. Play nice, or else!
I had watched my four-legged hero, only one leg deemed to be sound, drop from out of the clouds to win numerous major stakes. His triumphant late runs became habitual, yet no less fascinating. By 1976, he was 6 years old and I believed I had already seen his best, his finest moments. I was wrong. What I witnessed on the afternoon of Oct. 2, 1976 at Belmont Park will stay with me forever.
It was Marlboro Cup Day and with the morning came a steady rain. Terrible news for trainer Frank Whiteley and camp Forego. His aging arthritic legs as well as his stretch running style were placed squarely behind the 8 ball. Scratching was an option. The decision was to run.
Honest Pleasure, a 2-turn speedster trained by LeRoy Jolley was coming off an impressive victory in the Travers. Word filtered that he was fitter than fit and wound tighter than a drum for the Marlboro. The muddy surface would support his front running style; he was half Forego's age and the warhorse was spotting his younger rival 18 pounds.
The gates opened and to no one's surprise the two favorites took up their respective positions. Honest Pleasure made the lead easily and built a comfortable 2-length cushion while reserved. Forego brought up the rear and got muddier at every call. Reasonable fractions left Honest Pleasure fresh as he turned for home a clear leader. Forego was an impossible 10 lengths back and looking every bit his age. And then...
Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker: "Top of the stretch I didn't think we'd be in the money. I knew darn well I wasn't going to win. Then he dug in and started to roll. With an eighth of a mile left it seemed impossible. At the sixteenth pole I thought 'Hey, just maybe . . . It was the greatest race I've been in or seen."
I was among the 31,000 in attendance that dank autumn day. The majority of us searching for the familiar yellow and black silks of the Lazy F Ranch to emerge and willing the ol' freight train home.
Sure I was an impressionable 15 years old then. But to this day that moment still owns my racing heart. Forty years later I'm at the New York Post; the only daily handicapper in the nation's largest city. Not the best mind you.
My uncle George, who may have had a buck or two on Honest Pleasure, tells me the same thing every time we meet. "He didn't get there." Not only did he get there he granted me a bird's eye view of just how beautiful this sport truly is.
Vic Cangialosi is a veteran racing handicapper and turf writer for the New York Post.
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