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This week is a recap of the 1986 Marlboro Cup Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park, written by Russ Harris with the headline "Showdown in the Marlboro" in the Sept. 20, 1986 issue of BloodHorse.
Throughout the week before the 14th running of the $500,000 Marlboro Cup Handicap (gr. I) Sept. 13, speculation centered on which of those runners receiving invitations would actullay get to the starting gate. The main figure of pre-race guessing was Tartan Stable's Ogygian.
Most racing people were confident trainer Jan Nerud would opt to run against 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles in the Pegasus Handicap (gr. II) Friday night at Meadowlands rather than take on such older powerhouses as Fred W. Hooper's Precisionist and Saron Stable's Turkoman at 1 1/4 miles in the Marlboro. Both Ogygian and Peter M. Brant's Mogambo were entered in the $300,000 Pegasus as well as the Marlboro.
A forecast for scattered showers or thunderstorms Friday and clearing skies Saturday further clouded the picture. The prediction had horsemen and newsmen checking the skies periodically or calling the weather bureau.
In the event of a sloppy or muddy track at Meadowlands, Nerud planned to scratch Ogygian and await the Marlboro, providing the Belmont Park racing strip was not sloppy or muddy. If Ogygian skipped the New Jersey race, Mogambo might run there.
If Belmont came up sloppy or muddy, Precisionist would not run. Then Eugene V. Klein's Lady's Secret would run.
"She runs only if she is the only speed in the race," said (assistant) trainer Jeff Lukas.
The only certain starters among the seven entered in the Marlboro were Turkoman, Roo Art, and Ends Well.
As so often happens, the weather forecast was wrong. No showers or thunderstorms appeared in the New York metropolitan area. The weather was perfect the entire weekend, with temperatures in the 70s.
Around 2:30 p.m. Friday, it was announced in the Belmont pressbox that a van carrying Ogygian had just passed through Gate 6 en route to New Jersey. Mogambo remained at Belmont for the Marlboro.
Trainer Gary Jones never left any doubt about the plans for Turkoman.
"We've been planning on the Marlboro since last May," he said. "He runs even if there's an earthquake."
Turkoman had finished a fast-closing second to Groovy Aug. 17 in the seven-furlong Forego Handicap (gr. II) in his only start since a fourth in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) last May. Jones told newsmen at the traditional Marlboro breakfast that he believed the 17-hand, 4-year-old son of Alydar—Taba, by Table Play, was ready for his best.
"He had a high blood count when we came here for the Met Mile but we never put a finger on it, just let him get over it himself, and he did. It was a strange thing," Jones said.
Irv Guiney, assistant trainer and exercise rider for the colt, reported Turkoman was "full of enthusiasm." Jones revealed that Turkoman would make only two starts after the Marlboro, the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), before going to stud at Darby Dan Farm.
The trainer knew Turkoman would be at a tactical disadvantage in the Marlboro because Precisionist would be the only real speed in the field. Chris McCarron had been riding both Turkoman and Precisionist but elected to ride Turkoman in the Marlboro. The jockey had been given breeding rights to the Saron runner. McCarron's choice became academic, however, after he suffered a broken shoulder blade when one of his mounts stumbled badly and spilled him at the start of a race at Del Mar.
Jones chose Gary Stevens to ride Turkoman and brought the rider in from California to work the colt seven furlongs in 1:24 4/5 on the Monday preceding the race.
"It doesn't really matter a whole lot who rides Turkoman," the trainer said. "He moves when he wants to move and if you urge him the first part of it, you just make him mad."
Jones added that he was aware Precisionist would be able to dictate the pace, but he said he thought Turkoman was the best racehorse in the United States and the runner would have to stand or fall on his own merits.
Owner and breeder Hooper had sent Precisionist to New York intending to run only in the $332,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 30. But when the 5-year-old son of Crozier ran down the brilliant Lady's Secret to win by 4 3/4 lengths in 1:46 for the nine furlongs, plans were changed. Hooper ruled out an attempted sweep of Belmont's fall championship series, which includes the Woodward, Marlboro, and Gold Cup, but decided to try the 1 1/4 miles of the Marlboro with the top weight of 127 pounds and a new rider, Jorge Velasquez, soon to leave for France, replacing McCarron.
Precisionist was conceding four pounds to Turkoman, but the Hooper runner had a race over the track and would dictate the fractions. The question for him was the distance. In seven previous starts this year, the homebred had won four times and two of his three defeats had been at 10 furlongs. The other loss came on a sloppy track in Monmouth Park's Philip H. Iselin Handicap (gr. I) at nine furlongs.
Bettors in a crowd of 29,183, the largest of the meeting so far, had trouble deciding on a favorite. Precisionist appeared to many observers to be the leading contender for Horse of the Year off his smashing victory in the Woodward but although Turkoman's record showed him 0-for-3 in New York stakes (he had won an allowance race at seven furlongs last Oct. 16) the Kentucky-bred had strong support in the Marlboro. He was favored in the betting at 7-5 until the last two minutes before post time, when Precisionist finally dropped from 8-5 to become the 6-5 choice.
Mogambo, the only 3-year-old in the lineup, was the 4-1 third choice with Angel Cordero Jr. and 113 pounds; Roo Art, 119 with Bill Shoemaker, was 7-1; and Greentree Stable's Ends Well was the 17-1 outsider under 114 pounds with Randy Romero.
The massive Turkoman towered over his opposition, especially the pocket-sized Ends Well, in the paddock and post parade, and in the Marlboro, too.
Velasquez sent Precisionist to the lead from the No. 1 post, as expected, and got away with nice and easy fractions—:24 1/5 (around the clubhouse turn), :47 3/5, and 1:11. Ends Well, Roo Art, and Mogambo raced in fairly close attendance, with Turkoman last, as expected, only not as far back as expected. Chartman Jack Wilson indicated Turkoman was 9 1/2 lengths off the leader after the first quarter, nine after the half, and 7 1/2 after six furlongs.
Mogambo advanced to second approaching the far turn, but never seriously threatened before dropping back. Leaving the half-mile pole, Turkoman began advancing with powerful strides, moving into third position at the quarter-pole, a head behind Roo Art, which was three lengths behind Precisionist. The mile was completed in 1:35 4/5.
Velasquez sat cool, perhaps too long, not drawing his whip until Turkoman had surged into second position and was at his flanks. Precisionist responded from the left-handed whip as Turkoman drew alongside, with Stevens also using the whip from the port side.
Once collared though, Precisionist was no match for Turkoman's late power. The dark bay gangbuster led by only a head as he passed the furlong marker, but the issue was no longer in doubt.
Turkoman reached the wire 1 1/2 lengths the best, his final quarter run in less than :23 3/5. It was a powerful performance. The final clocking of 2:00 equaled the stakes record jointly held by Wajima and Forego, and was only two-fifths of a second slower than the track standard, set by Silver Buck under 111 pounds in 1982.
The $300,000 purse boosted Turkoman's earnings to $1,284,814, making him racing's 91st millionaire.
Precisionist was easily second-best, finishing 8 3/4 lengths before Roo Art, who had a half-length on Mogambo. Ends Well wound up 8 1/2 lengths farther back.
The 23-year-old Stevens, who had to catch a plane back to the West Coast shortly after the Marlboro, said that Jones had told him to warm up Turkoman as much as possible in the post parade.
"That made him real responsive when I asked him," the jockey said. "At the quarter pole, I had him rolling and felt Precisionist would have to run the race of his life to beat him. I felt very confident with the long stretch. I was glad to see it. At 1 1/4 miles, Precisionist was going to need everything he had. Turkoman is a nice horse and maybe he's got the best kick for the distance.
"It's hard to say, being the first time I've ever ridden him, but he's maybe the best horse I've ever ridden. It's going to take something special to beat him right now."
Stevens said he had a little trouble getting Turkoman to change leads. The horse changed near the sixteenth pole.
The jockey added that he was going to Hawaii for a vacation and was happy to have had the opportunity to ride Turkoman. McCarron, who discussed the horse at length with Stevens to help him in the Marlboro, is expected to ride the colt again when he recovers from his injury.
"In my opinion, he's the best horse in the country," said Jones, who accompanied breeder and co-owner Corbin Robertson of Houston, Texas, and co-owner Daniel M. Galbreath of Darby Dan to the pressbox. Jones admitted being, "scared to death," when he saw the half-mile fraction of :47 3/5.
"He's been our Horse of the Year from the get-go," the trainer said.
"He has shipped around a lot and travels very well," Robertson said.
Turkoman now has four victories in six starts this year, his other triumphs including wins in the six-furlong Tallahassee Handicap in 1:08 1/5 at Hialeah, the Widener Handicap (gr. I) in a record 1:58 3/5 for 1 1/4 miles, and the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II). His defeats came in the Metropolitan, in which he finished strongly to miss by 1 1/2 lengths and the Forego, in which he lost by only three-quarters of a length.
In the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 1 1/2 miles, Turkoman probably will meet Roo Art and another from the (D. Wayne) Lukas stable—Valley Victory, winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I). Also, Danzig Connection might start in the Gold Cup, but the field is certain to be small. Turkoman may be vulnerable to a slow pace, but it will take a good runner to give him a serious battle.
As for the Breeders' Cup Classic, Jones offered Turkoman's foes a ray of hope.
"He doesn't seem to like the Santa Anita strip too much," the trainer said.
Turkoman has not raced there since last year, however, and he has improved mightily since then.
Afterward: Turkoman closed out his career by finishing second to Crème Fraiche in the Jockey Club Gold Cup under McCarron. Then, under Pat Day, Turkoman finished second to Skywalker in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He was named champion older horse of 1986.