August 31, 2009

Remembering ... Wajima

I will never forget the afternoon when Wajima and Forego came together in a furious stretch battle during the 1975 Marlboro Cup. They turned the race of the year into their own personal dual. Top horses Ancient Title, Foolish Pleasure, Avatar, Royal Glint, and Step Nicely were left far behind as these two champions had at it. The five-year-old Forego carrying ten more pounds than his younger rival, gave Wajima everything he had, but could not get by. It was striking for me to see the big, beautiful son of Bold Ruler almost dwarfed by the monster that was Forego. As they sprinted home to the wire he simply would not let the giant horse win. Wajima had beaten Forego for the second consecutive race, this time by looking him in the eye and battling to a hard-fought, head victory. It may not have been the result that the majority of the Belmont crowd wanted that day, but I went home happy.

Wajima was the highest priced yearling of 1973, and for that matter was the highest priced yearling ever at the time of his sale. Out of the last crop of the great American sire Bold Ruler, and a half brother to Naskra, the strapping bay always exuded the look of quality. So it was some surprise to see Wajima languishing as just a good horse, but far from a great one, in the early Summer of 1975. Everyone had been watching the $600,000 colt and my family was no exception.

I was only in the first grade but already was an avid fan of the sport. My Dad was, so I was. Thanks Dad! 1975 was the first year that I remember races quite well. Bits and pieces of races from 1973 and 1974 scatter my memory, but in 1975, I became a full-fledged fan. Everyone loved the ill-fated Ruffian who died that year and Forego had legions of fans especially in New York. For me, the first horse I really loved was Wajima and that love affair was born from a short stretch of time in 1975. It began with a change of strategy by his experienced trainer Steve DiMauro.

DiMauro knew that the real Wajima had not revealed himself on the track yet. He won four times and had been 2nd in a few major stakes, but his true talent was still below the surface. DiMauro decided what his colt needed was some confidence, something to bring his mental game on a par with his physical abilities. That prompted a trip to the old Bowie Racecourse and a start in the Marylander Handicap. Wajima toyed with his rivals and set a track record in the process. Mission accomplished…he was now a confident horse. Monmouth Park and the Monmouth Invitational (now called the Haskell) was next on Wajima’s dance card. His new found confidence was on display that day as he overcame an extremely troubled trip to defeat the game Intrepid Hero by a measured neck. The real Wajima had arrived and it was time for him to test the big boys back in New York.

Unfortunately, there were no big boys to be found in that year’s Travers and Wajima turned it into a laugher, cruising home best by ten, effortless lengths. On to Belmont and the best of the best. The old Governor Stakes was a showdown. The Champion Forego taking on the best handicap horse in California, Ancient Title and the top 2 three-year-olds in the country Foolish Pleasure, the Derby winner and last year’s 2-year-old champion, and the now red-hot Wajima. This story’s hero was again victorious as he beat Foolish Pleasure by a head with Ancient Title third and Forego, carrying a whopping 134 pounds, a wide and late fourth. Wajima had beaten three future Hall of Fame horses and he would do it again just 12 days later in the Marlboro Cup.

In a five race span, Wajima had set a track record at Bowie, overcame a bad trip to win Monmouth’s biggest race, won the Mid-summer Derby by 10 lengths, and did something that I am not sure if any horse has ever done by beating three Hall-of-Famers in two consecutive races. In so doing he clinched the 3-year-old championship despite not having raced in any of the Triple Crown races and propelled both his trainer, DiMauro, and his jockey, Braulio Baeza, to eclipse awards as well.

The mighty Forego would gain a measure of revenge by edging away from Wajima in their third and final meeting in the 1 ½ mile Woodward just two weeks after the Marlboro. But once again, Wajima proved his greatness as he battled Forego gamely down the stretch and it was a full 11 lengths farther back to the third horse, Grade 1 winner Group Plan.

That record yearling price of 1973 certainly turned out to be a steal. As Wajima’s successful racing career came to an end after his 3-year-old season, he once again broke a world record when he was syndicated as a stallion for $7.2 million. Wajima’s final race record shows 9 wins and 5 seconds from 16 starts, but it was that five race stretch in the Summer/Fall of 1975 that will always be special to me. I remember you … Wajima


LDP said...

Nicely done. Your monday remembering blogs always make my imagination go back in time to see how great these horses that i never got a chance to witness, really were.

Ernie said...

Underrated and much-forgotten, Wajima is greatly deserving of your column. Thanks for giving him his props.

Celeste said...

Very cool post, Brian! How wonderful that you have these memories to treasure and share. In 75 I was a busy young mom trying to juggle the three year old and the new baby and not following horse racing, in spite of loving horses all my life. Thanks for bringing the ones I missed out on to life for me now in my *golden* years - haha!

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