No major stakes has undergone more changes than the Woodward Stakes, once regarded as the maker of champions, as it often was in the Woodward Stakes that horses clinched Horse of the Year honors.
Inaugurated in 1954, it has been run at three racetracks – Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga, the last its home since 2006. It has been run as a handicap, an allowance, and a weight-for-age event. It started out at the distance of one mile, then expanded to 1 1/8 miles one year later, and then to 1 1/4 miles one year after that. It was run at 1 1/4 miles for 16 years, then 1 1/2 miles for four years before being shortened back to 1 1/8 miles for two years, then back to 1 1/4 miles for three years, then back to 1 1/8 miles for seven years, then back to 1 1/4 miles for two years, then back to 1 1/8 miles, where it has remained for the past 28 years.
Run on Labor Day weekend at Saratoga, it has lost a great deal of its character, sitting between the Whitney and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and serving as another prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
But there was a time when the Woodward was THE fall race of the year, run in late September, where many a showdown for Horse of the Year occurred. What launched the Woodward as the most important race of the fall was the battle for Horse of the Year in 1959 between the great Round Table, the leading California horse Hillsdale, and the Belmont and Travers winner Sword Dancer. When the diminutive 3-year-old Sword Dancer slipped through along the rail under Eddie Arcaro to nip Hillsdale by a head, it boosted the reputation of the Woodward as the definitive battleground for Horse of the Year.
Sword Dancer won it again in 1960, and then came Kelso’s three straight victories from 1961 to 1963, earning the great gelding the Horse of the Year title all three years. In 1964, Gun Bow’s dramatic nose victory over Kelso was one of the greatest races anyone had seen in a long time. The next three winners – Roman Brother, Buckpasser, and Damascus – all were named Horse of the Year.
The 1967 showdown between future Hall of Famers Damascus, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager was called the “Race of the Century” until Damascus blew it wide open with his sensational 10-length romp. Two years later, the outstanding 3-year-old Arts and Letters defeated the leading older horse Nodouble to nail down Horse of the Year honors.
In 1972, the distance of the race was changed to a mile and a half, and when the Marlboro Cup was introduced in 1973 featuring Secretariat and Riva Ridge, the Woodward seemed to lose its identity. But one horse made sure it didn’t lose its importance.
That horse was the Mighty Forego, who captured the Woodward an unprecedented four consecutive years from 1974 to 1977, with each one writing its own chapter in the history books.
Yes, Kelso’s feat of winning five straight Jockey Club Gold Cups was phenomenal, but at two miles it often drew small fields and served mostly as an encore and a procession for horses who had already secured Horse of the Year honors.
When Forego won his four straight Woodwards, each was a competitive affair and an important race in deciding the championships.
Many racing fans today do not realize just how important Forego was to the Sport of Kings. The void left by Secretariat’s early retirement in 1973 was so enormous it looked to be impossible to fill. But along came the Herculean Forego, a mountain of a horse, who was still a growing baby when he finished fourth to Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby. He began to come into his own at the end of his 3-year-old campaign. But it was as a 4-year-old that he grew into a legend. And that legend continued to grow over the next four years when he dominated the sport and won the hearts of the entire nation.
From May 30, 1973 until August 6, 1977, Forego went an incredible 45 consecutive races without finishing worse than fourth. In fact, he finished in the top three in 43 of those races. He carried 130 pounds or more 24 times, winning 13 of them and finishing in the money in 21 of them. In those 24 races, his average weight was an astounding 134 pounds, and he carried as much as 137 pounds going 1 1/4 miles, which he won, 138 pounds going 1 1/4 miles, in which he was beaten a neck, and 137 pounds going 1 1/2 miles, in which he was second.
Of the great weight carriers over a distance of ground – Forego, Kelso, Discovery, Equipoise, and Exteminator, only Exterminator and Forego were able to win a stakes race carrying as much as 136 pounds at the age of 7.
To demonstrate Forego’s remarkable versatility, he won four of his five starts, with one second, at distances of 1 1/2 miles or longer, and won eight of his 12 starts, with two seconds and two thirds, at seven furlongs.
What made Forego’s feats so extraordinary was that he went through his entire career with sesamoid problems and calcium deposits on his knees. When Frank Whiteley took over his training in 1976 from Sherrill Ward, who was having health problems, he told owner Martha Gerry that Forego had the worst legs he’d ever seen on a horse. It was said about Forego that he basically had one sound leg. Whitely would sit outside his barn every day for several hours hosing down his legs. He would hose him down so long it created a puddle so large it became known around the barn as Lake Whiteley.
As Whiteley said several years ago, “Everybody laughed at me when I took him, even Doc (Alex) Harthill, who X-rayed him and told me, ‘Frank, you haven't got a chance with this horse.’ It was the constant hosing of his legs that helped get him to the races. I got a picture of in my bedroom of me and two other guys runnin’ three hoses on him at the same time. We’d hose him twice a day for two to three hours each time. We also did a lot of massaging. His ankles were horrible to look at from so much wear and tear. He was an amazing horse to do the things he did.”
Forego’s amazing accomplishments began in the 1974 Woodward when it began one of the most remarkable three-race winning streaks, and displays of versatility, anyone had ever seen.
1974 WOODWARD STAKES
Forego first showed his uncanny versatility earlier in the year when he scored victories in the mile and a quarter Gulfstream Park and Widener Handicaps, winning the former in a near-track record 1:59 4/5, and then dropped down to seven furlongs in the Carter Handicap, where, under topweight of 129 pounds, he blew right by the fastest sprinter in the country, Mr. Prospector, to win by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:22 1/5. It came as a shock when he was then upset by the tough little Arbees Boy in the Met Mile, even though Forego was carrying 134 pounds and giving 22 pounds to Arbees Boy.
Forego turned the tables on Arbees Boy in the Brooklyn Handicap, but in his two losses to Big Spruce in the Governor Stakes and Marlboro Cup, he finished behind Arbees Boy.
Then came the Woodward Stakes, now run at 1 1/2 miles. This would be the race that began the Forego dynasty. Forego dropped back to 10th in the 11-horse field, 17 lengths off the slow pace (:49 and 1:13 2/5) set by the Allen Jerkens-trained distance loving Group Plan. Arbees Boy was in a good position in midpack. When jockey Heliodoro Gustines asked Forego to pick it up, the big gelding began to make up ground quickly, but was unable to find room between horses. Arbees Boy, meanwhile was making a sweeping move on the outside to move into contention.
Trapped behind horses, Gustines swung Forego to the outside and he began gobbling up the ground. Arbees Boy passed Group Plan inside the eighth pole and was still going strong. But Forego was relentless. He kept coming with those ground-devouring strides and nipped Arbees Boy at the wire to win by a neck, coming home his final quarter in :24 1/5 and stopping the clock at a solid 2:27 2/5.
What Forego did after that was unprecedented. He dropped back to seven furlongs in the Vosburgh Handicap, and carrying 131 pounds, he easily defeated Stop the Music by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:21 3/5. He then won the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup by 2 1/2 lengths over the French invader Copte and Group Plan in a sharp 3:21 1/5.
So, in the span if six weeks, Forego won major stakes at 1 1/2 miles, seven furlongs, and two miles. He became the only horse in history to win the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup and be voted champion sprinter the same year. And he was the overwhelming selection as Horse of the Year.
The legend of Forego was born.
1975 WOODWARD STAKES
This was the year Forego would meet his toughest test and arguably his toughest challenger. He started the year off with victories in the Seminole, Widener, and Carter Handicaps, again winning the seven-furlong sprint coming off a victory at 1 1/4 miles. This time he won the Carter under 134 pounds. Assigned a staggering 136 pounds in the Met Mile, he finished third behind the Damascus colt Gold and Myrrh, in receipt of 15 pounds. But he bounced back with victories in the Brooklyn Handicap under 132 pounds, setting a new track record of 1:59 4/5 for the 1 1/4 miles, and mile and a half Suburban Handicap under 134 pounds, beating his old nemesis Arbees Boy by a head, giving him 16 pounds.
With five major stakes victories under heavy weights and the great Ruffian having met a tragic end in her match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, Forego looked to be a sure thing for another Horse of the Year title.
But the 5-year-old gelding wasn’t quite ready for the emerging 3-year-old star Wajima. Sold as a yearling for a record $600,000 (equivalent to $3.3 million today), this magnificent-looking son of Bold Ruler burst on the scene with an eight-length victory in the Marylander Handicap at Bowie. He followed that up with a gutsy neck score in the Monmouth Invitational Handicap (now the Haskell Invitational), and blew everyone away in the Travers Stakes, winning off by 10 lengths, a second off the track record.
It was time for Wajima and Foolish Pleasure to try older horses in the Governor Stakes, in which Wajima would carry a feathery 115 pounds, 19 pounds less that Forego’s topweight of 134 pounds.
Sent off as the 5-2 second choice, Wajima came from far back and outdueled Foolish Pleasure to win by a head, with Forego’s late wide move coming up 2 3/4 lengths short. It was the only time he finished as far back as fourth since the previous year’s Governor Stakes.
Now it was on to the mile and a quarter Marlboro Cup and a rematch between Forego and Wajima, with Foolish Pleasure and the brilliant and hard knocking Ancient Title, who was third in the Governor Stakes, both back for another try, along with Belmont Stakes winner Avatar.
Forego, carrying 129 pounds, was made the 7-5 favorite, with Foolish Pleasure 5-2, and Wajima a generous 9-2.
Forego and Wajima were running last and next to last, respectively, early, about a half-dozen lengths behind the pacesetting Royal Glint. Wajima took the outside route after running into traffic problems, while Forego, uncharacteristically, rallied along the rail. He stuck his head in front at the eighth pole, but here came Wajima again, and the two battled to the wire, with Wajima, in receipt of 10 pounds, getting his head in front. Forego never seemed as comfortable being inside horses as he was on the far outside where he could use that gargantuan stride. The final time of 2:00 flat was one-fifth off Forego’s track record.
Wajima had now taken over as the leading contender for Horse of the Year, a title he could nail down with a victory in the mile and a half Woodward Stakes.
Only four others showed up, including Group Plan and Avatar, both of whom relished the mile an a half. For Sherrill Ward, the strategy was simple. To beat Wajima, Forego had to be able to use the intimidation factor and stalk Wajima the whole way, sitting just off his outside flank. Then he would wear him down going a mile and a half with that humongous stride. And he finally was going to get a weight-for-age race and not have to worry about giving away large chunks of weight.
Everyone was aware that a victory by either Forego, the 4-5 favorite, or Wajima, at even-money, would nail down Horse of the Year honors.
Avatar tried to use his stamina by setting a slow pace, and after a half-mile in :49 3/5, Wajima moved up alongside him in second, with Forego, as planned, breathing down his neck on the outside. They continued that way down the backstretch, the six furlongs in 1:13 2/5, and around the far turn.
As soon as Braulio Baeza asked Wajima for his run, Gustines gunned Forego, and the big gelding stuck his head in front at the head of the stretch. The two favorites drew well clear of the others, again battling head and head down the stretch. But this time, Forego was able to get the better of his younger rival and he began to ease clear inside the eighth pole, drawing away to a 1 3/4-length victory. It was 11 lengths back to Group Plan in third. Horse of the Year was his once again, as was another victory in the Woodward.
1976 WOODWARD HANDICAP
This very well may be one of the most forgotten and underrated performances of all time. Forego, now trained by Frank Whiteley, finally won his first Met Mile, beating the previous year’s Preakness winner Master Derby while carrying 130 pounds. That was followed by a victory in the Nassau County Handicap under 132 pounds and a nose defeat to Foolish Pleasure in the Suburban Handicap under 134 pounds.
But one thing about Forego, whenever he was beaten, you could count on payback time, and he came right back to defeat the tough Lord Rebeau and Foolish Pleasure in the Brooklyn Handicap, again carrying 134 pounds. In the Amory Haskell, he was unable to give Greentree’s Hatchet Man 24 pounds and had to settle for third, beaten one length.
Now, when you mention Forego’s 1976 campaign, everyone thinks of his dramatic stretch run in the Marlboro Cup, in which he just got up to defeat Travers winner Honest Pleasure by a head carrying a burdensome 137 pounds and coming within one-fifth of a second of his own track record. It was truly one of the epic stretch runs of all time, and the image of Forego charging past Honest Pleasure right on the wire way out in the middle of the track has become frozen in time.
But few remember the race that came before that. In the Woodward, now run as a handicap at 1 1/8 miles, Forego was meeting Honest Pleasure for the first time following the 3-year-old’s track record-breaking victory in the Travers Stakes, in which he wired his field by four lengths.
Also in the field was the 3-year-old Dance Spell, winner of the Jerome and Jamaica Handicaps and Saranac Stakes, as well as the Amory Haskell winner Hatchet Man.
Forego, sent off at even-money, was assigned 135 pounds and was giving 14 pounds to Honest Pleasure, 20 pounds to Dance Spell, and 21 pounds to Hatchet Man.
Honest Pleasure, sent off at 2-1, as expected, shot to the lead and was winging it out there through a half in :45 3/5. Forego, now ridden by Bill Shoemaker, was nine lengths back in seventh. Shoemaker saved ground most of the way before easing Forego to the outside at the three-eighths pole. Dance Spell had gotten first move and collared Honest Pleasure at the eighth pole. But here came the big freight train rolling out in the middle of the track.
With a blistering final eighth in :11 3/5, Forego roared by Dance Spell and drew off to score by 1 1/4 lengths. What made this performance so spectacular was the final time of 1:45 4/5, two-fifths off Secretariat’s world record. To run that fast carrying that much weight, going 1 1/8 miles, was truly historic and was one of the greatest performances we will ever see.
But, as mentioned, few remember it, as it remains lost in the spectacle of the Marlboro Cup.
1977 WOODWARD HANDICAP
This arguably was Forego’s most emotional victory. Now 7 years old, Forego won his second Met Mile, carrying 133 pounds and followed that up with another score in the Nassau County Handicap under 136 pounds. But his legs, the wear and tear, and the staggering weights finally caught up to him, and he was beaten a neck in the Suburban under 138 pounds and was a well-beaten second in the mile and a half Brooklyn under 137 pounds.
He then shipped to Saratoga for the Whitney Handicap over a very sloppy and slippery track he could never get hold of under 136 pounds. It was the only time he finished up the track. It looked as if the Mighty Forego finally was nearing the end of the line. Mrs. Gerry and Whiteley wanted to scratch him in the Whitney, but because so many people had shown up to see Forego, Mrs. Gerry didn't want to disappoint them and decided to let him run. Whiteley told Bill Shoemaker before the race if he saw Forego wasn't handling the track after the first few strides to just sit on him and let him run around there and bring him back safe.
Shoemaker could sense right away that Forego was slipping over the track and was unable to grab hold of it, and did as Whiteley said. It was a bitter disappointment for the Saratoga fans and Forego’s loyal legion of fans, and after three straight defeats, the thought entered everyone’s mind that Forego, at age 7, was not the same horse and that his career finally was coming to the end.
Forego returned to Belmont to point for the Woodward. This would be the big test to see whether he had any more to give. Unfortunately, the track came up sloppy again, leaving Whiteley and Mrs. Gerry with another tough decision. Yes, Forego had won the Marlboro Cup on a sloppy track the year before, but that was a drying out surface that was pretty firm underneath. Unlike the slick conditions in the Whitney, this also was more of a drying out slop, but not as fast as the Marlboro Cup and with plenty of moisture still in it. Forego, despite losing his last three races, would have to run over the wet surface carrying 133 pounds, giving 18 pounds to Great Contractor, the horse who beat him by 11 lengths in the Brooklyn; 12 pounds to J.O. Tobin, who was making his first start since annihilating Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in the Swaps Stakes in a blazing 1:58 3/5 for the 1 1/4 miles; and 19 pounds to Silver Series, winner of the Ohio, American, and Hawthorne Derbys and third in the Travers.
Whiteley, Mrs. Gerry, Shoemaker, and Frank's son David, a successful trainer in his own right, met in the tunnel several hours before the race to discuss the situation and whether they should run or not. David said he didn't want any part of it and left. Mrs. Gerry, having learned from the Saratoga experience, this time wanted to scratch and wait for the Marlboro Cup two weeks later. Shoemaker had ridden in one of the early races and said he thought the track was too bad to take a chance. Whiteley, who wanted to scratch in the Whitney, said the horse was at the top of his game and ready to run. He knew he had Forego in the best shape he could possibly get him and felt he couldn't keep him that good for another two weeks. Whiteley was convinced Forego was ready for a big effort when the horse bit two people in the barn that morning. So, all day, fans waited for the inevitable announcement that Forego had been scratched. It never came.
Forego emerged from the barn looking fantastic, his coat beautifully dappled, and it was apparent he was in the zone. The only question was the track, which still was listed as sloppy.
The fans had their doubts as well, making Forego the 9-5 favorite, his highest odds in more than two years. J.O. Tobin, who was bet down to 5-2, set most of the early pace along with Proud Birdie. They cut out swift fractions, with Forego in eighth, about 10 lengths back.
As they hit the far turn, all eyes were on Forego. Would he make his patented sweeping run or were we watching the end of an era? No one had any idea how he was handling the track, so we waited and hoped. Then it happened. In a flash, Forego kicked in and began picking off horses one by one with those magnificent strides, just as he had done so many times before. Track announcer Chic Anderson bellowed to the crowd, “He’s gonna run today, folks.”
That brought an eruption from the crowd, as they knew the old boy was back, circling the field way out in the middle of the track, where he made most of his winning moves. Even though he still had several lengths to make up, everyone knew there was no way he was getting beat on this day.
Yes, he ran today, folks, just like the Forego of old. He was still fourth at the eighth pole, but only a half-length off the new battling leaders Cinteelo, Silver Series, and Great Contractor. Forego was still well out in the middle of track, and it was obvious he had the others measured. He charged to the front and drew off to win by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:48 flat. You could feel the emotion rippling throughout Belmont. It was hard not to get goose bumps. Forego was back. The 1977 Woodward to this day remains one of the most emotional and satisfying races I've ever experienced.
But, as it turned out, Forego was back only for this one brief moment. His ankles caught up to him after the race and he was put away for the year. He came back the following June at age 8 to defeat Dr. Patches going seven furlongs, and then beat only one horse, finishing fifth, in the Suburban Handicap under 132 pounds. His ankles had finally betrayed him. It was time to call it quits.
Forego’s four Woodward victories will forever hold a special place in history, each one in its own way typifying the greatness that was the Mighty Forego.