Shortly after dawn on the day before Saturday's $500,000 Marlboro Cup, trainer Gary Jones stood outside the stakes barn at Belmont Park watching his monster horse, Turkoman, being hosed down. "He's just a tough old stud," Jones said of the dark bay 4-year-old son of Alydar who had just finished a morning gallop. "I definitely feel he's the best handicap horse in the country, but we'll find out tomorrow. In this business you can't find out any other way."
That's a refreshing attitude in a game that in recent years has tended to retire horses after their 3-year-old seasons. And on Saturday, Turkoman proved his trainer a prophet. After trailing the leader by as much as 10 lengths in the 1¼-mile Marlboro, the Turk lit up and blew past the 5-year-old Precisionist in midstretch to win by 1½ lengths. Although Turkoman was carrying 123 pounds, 4 less than the favored Precisionist, his commanding performance gave notice that there's yet another contender in the wide-open race for Horse of the Year. "I'm so happy I can't stand it," said Jones, who pocketed 10% of the $300,000 winner's purse. "He's been our horse of the year from the git-go, and we hope to prove it by the end of the year." That would be on Nov. 1 in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, where these same two California horses will tangle again.
The Marlboro wasn't supposed to be Turkoman's race but rather a showcase for Ogygian, the 3-year-old colt who has been roundly hyped for the past year as the greatest racehorse in the land. Unfortunately, Ogygian's handlers have an aversion to rain, distance, lights, cameras and, especially, action. After being rained out of the Jim Dandy and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, Ogygian's trainer, Jan Nerud, finally found a dry spot for him in the Jerome Handicap at Belmont on Labor Day, and the colt went a mile, winning by a head but not impressively.
Next stop, the Marlboro—or so they said. Faced with an extra quarter of a mile and the threat of Precisionist and Turkoman, the nation's top older horses, Ogygian's people hedged their bets by also entering their horse in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Pegasus for 3-year-olds at the Meadowlands on Friday night. For days there was much speculation about which side of the Hudson River Ogygian would race on. The shorter, easier race won out, but Ogygian didn't; he finished a listless third in the Pegasus, four lengths behind Danzig Connection, the Belmont Stakes winner trained by Woody Stephens. After all the hoopla that has attended his limited career, a number of horsemen got quite a cackle out of Ogygian's failure, especially Stephens, who has been furious ever since Nerud referred to Danzig Connection as "a nice allowance horse."
"I've had three or four horses that could've drug a buggy and beat him," crowed Stephens after Ogygian's defeat.
That left Saturday's race to Precisionist and Turkoman, the two stars from California. Precisionist had turned in such a splendid performance in winning the Woodward Stakes on Aug. 30 at Belmont that his owner, 89-year-old Fred Hooper, canceled the horse's plane reservation home and entered him in the Marlboro. Precisionist's trainer, Ross Fenstermaker, seemed calm and confident the day before the race, but he was keeping a sharp eye on Jones and Turkoman, fellow Californians, just a few steps down the shedrow.
The two trainers have been friendly rivals for years, and Chris McCarron has been the regular rider of both horses for some time. McCarron had guided Precisionist to four victories this year and had twice hit the finish line first on Turkoman. Given a choice between the two in the Marlboro, McCarron opted for Turkoman for the very good reason that he owns a breeding share in the horse. But McCarron fractured a shoulder blade in a spill at the Del Mar starting gate last week, so Gary Stevens, who is emerging as a top California jockey but who had ridden at Belmont only twice, was put aboard the Turk. Although Jones described Turkoman as "the greatest racehorse I've ever been around in my life, bar none," he wasn't about to take anything away from Fenstermaker's star. "He's a good horse," Jones said Friday, "as good as there is. But I've been chasing Precisionist for years. God, I'm tired of chasing Precisionist."
On Saturday afternoon he chased Precisionist again. Although there were five in the Marlboro field, it was really a two-horse race. Precisionist, the speed in the field, went right to the lead, just as he always does, while Turkoman, a come-from-behind, one-run horse, settled in last place, as usual. Precisionist was rated nicely through a slow early pace, dawdling through the first quarter in 24[1/5] and the half in 47[3/5]. The three also-rans each took a shot at the leader, but without success. Then, at the half-mile pole, going three horses wide around the turn for home, the Turk began his one big, unrelenting move. Just before midstretch Turkoman, laid out flat as a carpet, caught and passed Precisionist; he went on to win in two minutes flat, equaling the stakes record.
"He's got maybe the best kick in the country for the last quarter mile," Stevens said after the race. "He's a lot of horse, and it's going to take something special to beat him right now." Precisionist will get another chance when he meets the Turk in the Breeders' Cup, the day Horse of the Year honors will be sorted out. In the meantime, Turkoman will be going in the 1½-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 4.
Hours after the Marlboro, Jones stood once again outside the Turk's stall, shooting rapid-fire questions at his groom in Spanish. The non-Spanish-speaking visitors nearby understood only one word: "champagne." Moments later, Jones ambled down the shedrow to shake Fenstermaker's hand and ask if Precisionist had come out of the race O.K. "I'm gonna be here in the morning," Jones said to his rival. "Are you?"
"Sure will," replied Fenstermaker.
"Good, I'll buy the coffee," said Jones.
That's the way it goes at the track—champagne one day, coffee the next.
The gritty Turkoman closed a 10-length lead and carried Stevens to the winner's circle.