April 14, 1984 makes it more than 35 years ago now. A crowded Pimlico Race Course winner’s circle in the rain. Muddy chestnut horse. Fourteen people. Mom, Dad, Sheila, Sean, Fee the Iranian van driver, owner George Strawbridge, his wife Nina, their kids Sanna and Stewart, super fan Reddy Stewart, super groom Lonnie Fuller, jockey Paul Nicol Jr. and a mostly hidden valet.
Sean and I always went racing, but if Mom and Sheila were there too it must have been a big deal. It sure felt big at the time.
Fourmatt won the $100,000 Federico Tesio Stakes to run his winning streak to five. Next stop Preakness, which probably explains my smile. I’m in the back (tall guy), next to Lonnie whose face is pressed up against Fourmatt’s. Lonnie probably just finished saying, “Joey, we goin’ to the Preakness. Look out, you mother*******.”
Fourmatt was the best horse in the barn, far faster than the steeplechasers and way classier than the other flat horses. Dad spent $45,000 of Strawbridge’s money at the Maryland Sales Agency’s 2-year-old sale in 1983 and got a rocket. He worked a half-mile in :44, and my dad didn’t believe it. Figured something was wrong with his watch. The next time Fourmatt worked, Dad watched with the clockers. Like they do in the old racetrack tales, they asked “Can we put :48?” afterward. So they put :48.
Fourmatt lost his first start as a 2-year-old at Bowie, then won his next four – a Laurel Park maiden by 10 lengths at 3-1, two Laurel allowances, then the $50,000 Maryland Sales Agency Stakes (for graduates of the sale) at Bowie. He missed a final stakes start in the Maryland Juvenile Championship when the vet gave him penicillin instead of tetracycline for a quarter crack, which caused plenty of stress but we got over it – eventually.
Deputed Testamony had won the 1983 Preakness, showing every Mid-Atlantic trainer – and trainer’s kid – that the locals could do it. We’d run against Deputed Testamony with Money By Orleans and been reasonably competitive. Fourmatt was way better than Money By Orleans.
Let’s do this thing.
There were no Florida plans, no Kentucky Derby dreams. Stay home, aim for the Preakness. Fourmatt got a break at the farm in Pennsylvania, then shipped to Fair Hill Training Center. The place was in its infancy then with two barns, a wood-chip track, a drive-your-own-tractor-and-wagon manure disposal system and a shaky future. Strawbridge was an early investor, so we were there – for a time in the same barn where 2019 Preakness starter Alwaysmining is based now. I was a freshman in college down the road at the University of Delaware, but was in the barn every weekend.
The comeback target was a 3-year-old stakes at Bowie. Didn’t fill. Got canceled. Nobody wanted any part of Fourmatt, or that’s what we said anyway. Then run at Pimlico a month before the Preakness, the Tesio would have to be the spot. At 1 1/16 miles, it surely wasn’t ideal – especially when you look at the campaigns of today where the first two-turn race of the year seems like a small mountain for some 3-year-olds.
Then there was a jockey problem. Donnie Miller, aboard for all five prior starts, took off to ride another horse. People told his agent there was no way the horse could be ready off the layoff. The quarter-crack stress was nothing compared to this. As my dad put it the other day, he remembers trainer Leon Blusiewicz begging to differ. “He’s a steeplechase trainer. Those horses run 4 miles. He can get him ready.”
No matter. Miller was off, and Paul Nicol Jr. was on.
And Fourmatt blasted them again, winning the Tesio by 2 lengths at 6-1 to become the answer to an unasked trivia question as the first stakes winner stabled at Fair Hill Training Center (there are hundreds now).
Fourmatt went back to Fair Hill, then Delaware Park, to prep for the Preakness. The Preakness. Say it slowly. Deputed Testamony won the Tesio and the Preakness in 1983. Maybe we could make it two in a row. Heady stuff. We had some OK horses, a Michigan-bred stakes winner, decent steeplechasers. We were good at Charles Town, Delaware, Bowie, Keystone, Penn National. Not Pimlico on the third Saturday in May.
The other day my dad remembered a conversation with Carl Hanford, then a steward at Delaware Park but the trainer of 1960s Kelso. “He might be good enough to run with those horses,” Hanford said of the top 3-year-olds that year. Another friend, Ronnie Houghton, came by the barn just to see Fourmatt.
We’ll never know. Fourmatt got a chip in a knee and missed the Preakness won by Gate Dancer over Play On. Kentucky Derby winner Swale finished seventh. Miller was last on S.S. Hot Sauce. Fourmatt missed several months, finished third at Keystone in November, but was never the same. He lost his final five races, and became a chronic bleeder – the only horse I’ve ever seen bleed from the nose while turned out in a round pen.
“Nothing went right after the Tesio,” my dad said the other day, “nothing at all.”
Well, something did. A son of Quadratic and a Swaps mare, Fourmatt retired to a farm with former jockey/exercise rider Kevin Bowie. And maybe 2019 Tesio winner Alwaysmining can win one for Fourmatt.