March 16, 2010

Remembering ... Vigors

I always tell my friends who have never seen a Thoroughbred horse race in person, that it is an experience they will never forget. Horses and jockeys racing by at 40 miles per hour is a visceral wonder for the senses. It makes no difference if you are watching a $5,000 claimer or a grade 1 stakes race, the sights and sounds at the races are unlike anything else in the world. Often all it takes is one trip to the track to hook a person for life. Even more memorable is that one special horse you can simply not take your eyes off of for a second. A horse with unique characteristics, looks, or running style that beckons feelings deep within. You become an instant fan, devoting yourself to this horse in rooting spirit. Today I remember a horse that evoked these feelings in me. Although I only saw him race one time in person, Vigors was a horse that I will never forget. The day I saw Vigors up close was the inaugural running of the Turf Classic at Aqueduct Race Course.

Majestic Light was the family horse. I mean that strictly as a fan, our family had no connection to him, but he was my father’s favorite horse of 1976 & 1977, and therefore my brother and I also loved him. We were at Aqueduct that day in hopes of seeing Majestic Light clinch an Eclipse Award as champion turf horse of 1977. I can still see pieces of the program page in my mind’s eye. Majestic Light was the 7, his main rival was the 4, Johnny D., and a longshot from California named Vigors, was the 3. I remember that name catching my eye; I was eight years old and I think names meant a little more to me in those days. I recall that we were all disappointed that the horse we considered Majestic Light’s biggest rival, Exceller was not there that day. Majestic Light, Exceller, and Johnny D. had finished 1-2-3 in three consecutive major turf races that Fall, with each with each winning once. Majestic Light was heavily favored over Johnny D. and his teenage rider Steve Cauthen. The race unfolded exactly how we did not want it to. Johnny D. set a slow pace and the stretch runner Majestic Light was forced to chase. This was not his game and it showed as Johnny D. pulled clear to a 3 ¾ length score. We were disappointed, Johnny D. was named turf champ, but it was the other horse who made an impression on me. Vigors was a big, striking colt and he was almost completely white. He stood out visually, and he ran a deceptively fine race that day. Vigors rallied on the dawdling pace to be lapped on to Majestic Light and the fine French horse, Crow. I would never see him in person again, but his 4th place finish in the Turf Classic was my introduction to a horse I would become enthralled with the following Spring.

By chance, Vigors next race would be on the dirt, two months later at Santa Anita Park. Rain forced the San Marcos off the grass that January afternoon and trainer Larry Sterling chose to run Vigors anyway, as he believed his charge could handle the surface that he had not cared for as a youngster. He was right. As many of life’s greatest stories are born from happenstance, so was this one. In the San Marcos, the big white horse came from way back and inhaled his competition. It was like lightning in a bottle as the now five-year-old son of Grey Dawn II, armed with new rider Darrel McHargue, romped home by more than four lengths over the classy Pay Tribute. Dirt it would be for Vigors from there on. He had switched to grass in his first season of racing, after showing little on the dirt in his first seven races. The grass brought immediate improvement, and as the pigment challenged runner grew into his frame, he became a very solid performer on the grass. As a four-year-old he won a couple of consecutive stakes, including the Grade 1 Hollywood Invitational. Grass had become his career and he raced on the lawn in 21 straight starts. He was one of the better turf handicap horses in California, but far from a national star. Stardom would come with his re-introduction to dirt.

After the awesome performance in the San Marcos, Sterling had to run Vigors again on the dirt. That race would come four weeks later in the Grade 1 San Antonio. It was a solid field that included future Hall of Famer Ancient Title, Pay Tribute, and Crystal Water. Despite the credentials of his opponents, Vigors was made the favorite. On paper it did not make sense for him to be favored, but that is how visually impressive he had been in the San Marcos. If in the San Marcos, Vigors had knocked on the door of stardom, than in the San Antonio he kicked it in. In an explosion of stretch running power, Vigors steamrolled his opposition by seven lengths and broke the Santa Anita track record. Here was a white horse who dropped way back in the early stages, and then unleashed a late run not seen in those parts since Silky Sullivan. The White Tornado was born and California fans flocked to fandom like the Swallows of Capistrano. The Big ‘Cap in March would be next.

Owned and bred by William Hawn, and named for a friend of his, Vigors had everything the fans could want. He had the looks, he had the charisma, and boy could he run. More than 55,000 spectators came for the Big ‘Cap of 1978 and most of them were there to see the White Tornado. For a long time, it looked like it would not be the odds-on favorite’s day. Speedy Mr. Redoy had run away from the field, and it appeared the race might be over coming out of the far turn. No one told Vigors though, and the big white horse gained on the leader so fast and furious that it didn’t seem fair. Mr. Redoy succumbed and Vigors went on to another easy victory. Back home in New Jersey I had been following Vigors win streak through news articles. I was thrilled to finally see a replay of the Santa Anita Handicap and I instantly knew what all his fans in Southern California had felt. It was more than thrilling to see Vigors make his run. I dreamed of seeing him in the Fall against horse like Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Alydar. Unfortunately, it would not happen.

Vigors would get a brief rest, before coming back in the Summer at Hollywood Park. He would once again break the spirit of the front running Mr. Redoy in winning the Bel Air Handicap at odds of 2-5. His popularity was so great that when he returned for Hollywood’s signature event, the Hollywood Gold Cup, three weeks later he was bet down to 7-10. This despite the presence of the excellent Charlie Whittingham trained handicap horse, Exceller. Vigors, weighted down with his heaviest impost to date at 129, did not have his very best that day and was third in a three horse photo with Exceller getting the win on the rail. It was his first defeat in some time, but it did not prevent Hawn from sending his star to the East Coast to challenge Slew and Affirmed. Those meetings would never happen, as a recurrence of an ankle injury ultimately forced the retirement of the White Tornado. Vigors was sent to a moderately successful career at stud. He lived to the age of 21, before passing away in 1994. He may be long since passed, but for many of his fans, like myself, Vigors was one of those horses who will never be forgotten. Watching him was truly an experience.  I remember you Vigors.

7 comments:

william said...

brian...great article on a fabulous horse...never really followed california racing back then but i do remember that white horse rolling through the strecth...those white horses always piqued the interest of fans

Brian Zipse said...

Thanks William! I am glad that you remember him, he was a marvel.

Anonymous said...

remembering a nice racehorse,nice piece...brought back some sweet memories to me in more ways than you could ever imagine .....thanks brian.....guess who.....

Brian Zipse said...

Guess who??? Well, I may be way off here, and I apologize if I am, but I am going to guess that you are the original Zipse at the Track, none other than my Dad. Am I correct???

Jennifer said...

Great article, Brian. (I really like your series on remembering great racehorses.)

LDP said...

I was really looking forward to this one, especially after I saw the vid you had of him in the Santa Anita. It was a fantastic post Brian, great job!

Anonymous said...

VIGORS! Saw him race .. He and Darrel Quite the combo.. Loved watching him come from behind.. Loved that Southern California Circuit.