With the Haskell Invitational the next big step on the 3-year-old calendar, this is a perfect time to go back 30 years to one of the greatest races I have ever seen. The 1988 Haskell had huge shoes to fill coming one year after the epic three-horse battle that featured Alysheba, Bet Twice, and Lost Code and forever stamped Monmouth’s premier 3-year-old stakes as one of the most important races in the United States and launched the Jersey Shore track into a period of great prosperity, attracting the top horses in the country.
The ’88 Haskell featured its own three-horse showdown, but this one had one element that its predecessor or any other race could not match. The three big horses – 2-year-old champion and Kentucky Derby runner-up Forty Niner, Peter Pan and Dwyer winner Seeking the Gold, and Gotham and Wood Memorial winner Private Terms, who went into the Kentucky Derby as the undefeated favorite – all grew up in the fields of Claiborne Farm and were broken and trained together.
In the first set each day was the grand-looking Ogden Phipps owned and bred colt by Mr. Prospector, out of the Buckpasser mare Con Game later to be named Seeking the Gold. Claiborne general manager John Sosby recalled at the time that Seeking the Gold “was the kind of individual who would catch your eye. He had everything in the right places and he made you like him.”
In the second set was Claiborne’s smallish homebred chestnut who they would name Forty Niner. Another son of Claiborne’s red-hot stallion Mr. Prospector, out of the Tom Rolfe mare File, Forty Niner was “just a face in the crowd,” recalled Sosby. “We only knew he was there because of his mama, but that was all. Seeking the Gold was much more of a standout.”
In the third set was a tough dark bay colt by the Phipps-bred Private Account, out of Ruffian’s half-sister Laughter, who was owned and bred by Mr. and Mrs. Stuart Janney, who owned and bred Ruffian. That colt, later named Private Terms, was considered “kind of common,” by Sosby, who said, “When you wanted him to go to the right, he’d be thinking left. That whole family is tough.”
Although Private Terms wasn’t quite up to the task, Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold put on a show for the ages. What made their gut-wrenching stretch duel, in which Forty Niner dug down deep as he usually did to prevail by a nose, so remarkable was the fact that the temperatures that day were up around 100 degrees, and you could feel the heat burning the top of your head.
The two sons of Mr. Prospector showed that although they were still as similar physically as Mutt and Jeff, racing’s “Gold Dust Twins” did have one thing very much in common – heart. For the final three-eighths of a mile, these two gutsy colts tore through the intense heat and humidity, creating the strongest breeze felt all day. Forty Niner may have been nothing more than a face in the crowd as a youngster, but he showed on this day and many other days in his career that the most distinguishable feature of that face was the nose that separated him from his old classmate.
In his 19 career starts, Forty Niner was involved in nine photos – four noses, one head, and four necks – winning five of them. The four photo defeats were to the older Alysheba in the Woodward Stakes in a track-record 1:59 2/5 for the 1 1/4 miles; Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby, in which his huge rally came up a neck short; dual classic winner Risen Star in the Lexington Stakes; and Brian’s Time in the Florida Derby. So, three of his four defeats in photos were to champions. To beat Forty Niner, you had to run your eyeballs out, as they say. There were few if any horses gutsier than this tenacious little chestnut.
Three weeks after the Haskell, Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold hooked up again in the Travers Stakes, and once again Forty Niner refused to let Seeking the Gold get by him, again beating him by a nose in a sharp 2:01 2/5 for the 10 furlongs.
Later that year, Forty Niner would contest the new NYRA Mile (now the Cigar Mile) against older horses and yet again was involved in a photo, digging in to win by a neck in 1:34 flat. Among those he defeated was future Hall of Famer Precisionist.
Trainer Woody Stephens pointed Forty Niner for the Haskell following his debacle in the controversial Preakness, in which jockey Pat Day kept coming out into Winning Colors, as Stephens was not happy about getting beat by a filly in the Derby. But those tactics took its toll on Forty Niner. There is a line from the great Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, which goes, “Whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.” In the Preakness, the much slighter Forty Niner definitely was the pitcher in his shoving match with the Amazon Winning Colors.
Stephens gave Forty Niner two months off and brought him back in a one-mile allowance prep for the Haskell at Monmouth, which he won easily by 7 1/4 lengths in a track-record 1:33 4/5. Although Julie Krone rode him that day, Stephens announced afterward that Laffit Pincay would ride Forty Niner in the Haskell, with Pat Day on Seeking the Gold.
Shug McGaughey, trainer of Seeking the Gold, went into the Haskell with confidence after the colt turned in a sharp five-furlong work in :59 3/5, coming home his final eighth in :11 3/5. McGaughey said following the work that Seeking the Gold has “really matured since the Dwyer and is even eating a whole lot better now.”
Private Terms had his unbeaten streak ended in the Kentucky Derby, but when he bled in the Preakness it made his trainer Charlie Hadry believe he probably bled in the Derby as well. He was administered Lasix for the Governor’s Cup Handicap at Pimlico and romped by seven lengths. So he, too, was coming into the Haskell in top shape.
The stage was set for the reunion of the Claiborne Farm class of ’85. Forty Niner was made the 4-5 favorite, with Seeking the Gold and Private Terms both 5-2. Primal, a 7 1/4-length winner of the Spend a Buck Stakes at Monmouth, and the speedy sprinter Teddy Drone completed the field.
By noon, the temperatures were already in the high 90s and horses had to be washed down constantly all afternoon.
Forty Niner broke alertly and went right to the front, with Pat Day and Seeking the Gold right off his flank. Meanwhile, at the back of the small field, Julie Krone, on Teddy Drone, was sitting on a time bomb. The colt was ready for takeoff, with the pilot helpless at the controls. Going into the first turn, Teddy Drone was determined to get to the front and charged up along the rail only to find a couple of rear ends staring him in the face. Krone had two choices: try and hurdle Forty Niner, directly in front of her, or shove Seeking the Gold, who was occupying the only path available, out of the way.
She had little choice but to slice between the two leaders, slamming into Seeking the Gold and knocking him briefly off stride, a move that caused Pat Day to be livid after the race.
Krone said afterward, “I feel very bad and embarrassed that I bothered Seeking the Gold. I had a strong hold of my horse, but he broke the hold and ran off with me.”
As they headed down the backstretch, Teddy Drone finally settled down on the lead, with Forty Niner right behind, and Seeking the Gold, who was now back in rhythm, alongside. Primal and Private Terms were a couple of lengths farther back and in good striking position.
After a quarter in :24 1/5 and a half in :47 3/5, Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold both turned it on simultaneously, blowing by Teddy Drone and opening a clear lead, getting the six furlongs in 1:11 2/5 and hitting the quarter pole head and head. Private Terms and Primal also moved in tandem and were flying on the outside, moving up to challenge for the lead. But Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold were too strong and they began to pull away.
Forty Niner held the narrowest of leads, with Seeking the Gold battling on the outside. Through the stifling heat, they matched strides every step of the way, both giving every ounce of themselves. In the final eighth, run in a swift :12 1/5, Day hit Seeking the Gold 11 times right-handed, while Pincay hand-rode Forty Niner, who refused to yield.
“I was a little hesitant to use the whip,” Pincay said, “because we were running so close together, and every time I showed it to him he responded.”
Behind them, Private Terms and Primal were engaged in their own head and head battle for the show spot. Primal would narrowly get the nod by a half-length, finishing four lengths behind the top two.
In the final yards, Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold both were fully extended, their necks outstretched, reaching for the wire, despite the intense heat. As hard as Seeking the Gold tried he could not get his head in front of the dogged Forty Niner. They hit the wire noses apart in 1:47 3/5, just four-fifths of a second off the track record.
Afterward, Seth Hancock, president of Claiborne Farm, marveled at Forty Niner’s courage. “If you’re going to beat this horse you better blow by him, because if you get in a dogfight with him he’s awful tough to get by,” he said. “I’ve always loved his dam. We bred her to Mr. Prospector for three straight years and Forty Niner is from the third mating.”
Back at Phil Gleaves’ barn, where Forty Niner was stabled, Stephens and Gleaves watched the colt attack his hay rack. He was given two baths and two fans to cool him off and seemed quite content.
“Boy, he’s tough,” said Stephens. “I’ve never been around a horse who is easier to handle than this horse. He does whatever you want him to. We tried to speed him up one morning and he went five-eighths in :58, then we wanted him to go a mile in about 1:41 and he went in 1:40 4/5. He eats like a bear and has the sweetest disposition. You can tie him to a post in the infield while the races are going on and he wouldn’t care.”
Over in the next barn, Seeking the Gold was out grazing and seemed none the worse for wear. “He came out of the race in good order,” said McGaughey’s assistant Tony Reinstedler. “Shug has done a tremendous job with this horse and showed a lot of patience with him.”
The following morning, McGaughey said. “I really admire Forty Niner, and I just hope this race doesn’t take too much out of either colt. It should be a great rematch in the Travers.”
It didn’t and it was, with both colts duplicating their Herculean effort only three weeks later, with the result the same. Two races, two noses, two unforgettable stretch battles between two extraordinary colts who had grown up together and learned to be racehorses together.
Now here they were at Monmouth Park stabled in adjoining barns preparing for and recovering from the fight of their lives. Fourteen years earlier, there was another colt, who resided most of the year at Monmouth, and was stabled just yards away from where Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold were stabled for the Haskell. His name was Mr. Prospector, who on this day had two of his sons put on the show of the year on the hottest day of the year. He would soon become one of the most dominant sires in the history of American breeding.
We saw in the Haskell and Travers just how tough Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold were, but to further demonstrate it, Seeking the Gold died in 2016 at the ripe old age of 31. Forty Niner still lives in Japan at the age of 33. Even at this age he still hasn’t lost any of his fight.