Vigors Established Himself as a Breed Apart 20 Years Ago

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was one constant during the early part of Santa Anita's 1977-78 meeting, something to which current horseplayers and Californians in general can relate:

Lots and lots of rain.

For 18 of the first 19 days that season in Arcadia, the main track was off and, by the end of the meeting, the track had been something other than fast on 38 of 78 days.

As frustrating as it must have been, the wet weather of that winter was responsible for creating a star, a horse who, 20 years later, is still remembered fondly by those closest to him and those who saw him run.

A winner only five times in his first two years of competition while running almost exclusively on turf, a 5-year-old Vigors moved to a different level after being switched to the main track, a surface he'd resented as a youngster because he didn't care for dirt hitting him in the face.

Owned and bred by the late W.R. Hawn, a longtime chairman of the board at Del Mar and at the time a part owner of the Dallas Cowboys, the son of Grey Dawn II won the San Marcos Handicap, San Antonio Stakes and Santa Anita Handicap in less than two months.

All were accomplished in memorable fashion and what set Vigors apart was his look and running style.

The Kentucky-bred was named for Tim Vigors, an Irish friend of Hawn. He was officially listed as a roan but anyone who saw him would say he was white. He liked to drop far back early, then, like a white tornado, as he was labeled by some, come flying. In none of those three victories was the finish close.

His appearance and his breathtaking style made Vigors a fan favorite and all of it might not have happened had rain not forced the San Marcos off the grass.

Trainer Larry Sterling, who still believes Vigors would have been brilliant that season on either turf or dirt, had to persuade Hawn to participate that January afternoon.

"The owner didn't want to run," said Sterling, long retired from training and now living in Hot Springs, Ark. "But, I said he had trained well on the dirt and I was confident he would run well on it. The rest is history."

Teamed for the first time with jockey Darrel McHargue, who led the Santa Anita jockey standings that season with 136 victories, Vigors easily won the San Marcos.

"I didn't know anything about him," said McHargue, now a steward at Bay Meadows. "[Sterling] said he had trained well on the dirt and that [going from turf to dirt] wouldn't make any difference. Larry had a lot of confidence in him.

"I didn't know what kind of acceleration he was going to have, but every time I moved on him, you could feel him lower his body a little bit. I had never felt that kind of acceleration on that caliber of horse going that distance [1 1/8 miles]. It was pretty exciting.

"That horse is a special memory for me. When he got good, I thought he was better than any horse in the country. I think he would have beaten anybody that winter. He was a striking horse to look at and he had an unusual style of running. He was a white horse and fans liked that. I loved being on him."

That success made it easy to go on to the San Antonio, which was run as a stakes race, rather than a handicap, from 1968-82, and Vigors, according to Sterling, turned in his best performance that day.

Not only did he beat a field that included Ancient Title, Double Discount, Jumping Hill, Mark's Place, Pay Tribute and Crystal Water, four of whom held Santa Anita track records, he humbled them.

Ten lengths back after half a mile, his margin at the end of the 1 1/8 miles was seven lengths and he broke a 19-year-old track record for the distance. In fact, his final time of 1:46 1/5 is still a San Antonio record.

Vigors' popularity soared and 55,180 showed up to see him do it again a few weeks later in the Big 'Cap, which will be run for the 61st time Saturday. The odds-on favorite, he didn't disappoint, although things did look grim a furlong from the finish.

Ridden by Sandy Hawley, Mr. Redoy had opened a 3 1/2-length lead, but Vigors not only came and got him, he won by a widening 2 1/2 lengths over a slow surface.

It was the fitting climax to a meeting in which he earned $280,450, then a single-season record at Santa Anita, and he also helped track announcer Dave Johnson polish what is now his signature phrase.

"It wasn't until that winter with Vigors that I underlined the call 'And down the stretch they come!' and put the rumble in it," said Johnson, who called races at Santa Anita from 1977-83. " . . . It was the only way I could be heard over the crowd on those big days."

"Vigors was a race caller's dream because of his color, running style and [blue and white] silks. He had a style that was appealing to the eye and fans love a horse with a style like that. He was absolutely one of my favorites."

What may not be remembered is that Vigors nearly had to miss the Santa Anita Handicap. On his way to the training track the morning of the race, he suffered a cut on one of his hind legs when a horse who had gotten loose ran smack into his rear end.

"[The leg] was bleeding pretty good, so we bandaged it and we weren't even sure we were going to run him," Sterling said. "We didn't know until an hour before the race if we were going to run."

As if that wasn't bad enough, the start of the Big 'Cap was a nightmare. McHargue recalled Vigors hitting the side of the starting gate leaving, then the official chart said he collided hard with longshot Drapier.

"I had to pop him on the shoulder to remind him that there was a race going on," said McHargue, who won the Eclipse Award that year as the nation's top rider.

"He picked up the bit like he usually did and going down the backside, I thought I was pretty well placed, and when I got to the three-eighths pole, I thought I was in range. I got up to within three or four lengths of what I thought was the lead horse, but I was wrong."

Instead, Mr. Redoy, who carried seven fewer pounds than Vigors, the 127-pound highweight, had the lead and he and Hawley had made a mad dash for the wire.

"[Hawley] tried to open up at the head of the stretch because he knew I would be coming late," said McHargue, who won five other races that day. "I really thought I had made a major mistake at this point. "But, [Vigors] just kept accelerating and made up for the error on my part. He sustained his run and Mr. Redoy probably got just a little tired."

Most in the crowd were delighted and so was Hawn.

"I own only a small piece of the Cowboys," he said afterward. "I own all of Vigors. [The Big 'Cap victory] is my greatest thrill in sports."

It was also quite a payoff for Sterling, who had seen Vigors develop from a big, gawky, nervous colt into a seasoned professional. Before the winter of 1978, however, his biggest claim to fame was a 13-1 upset in the 1977 Hollywood Invitational Turf Handicap.

Unfortunately, Vigors, who was 21 when he died in 1994, ran only two more races after the Santa Anita Handicap. He won the Bel Air Handicap at Hollywood Park in early June, then was third, beaten by a neck and a head, to Exceller and Text in the Hollywood Gold Cup three weeks later.

Hawn's plan then was to campaign Vigors on the East Coast, but Sterling said he didn't want to relocate for two or three months, and the horse was turned over to Frank Whiteley. He never ran for his new trainer as a recurrence of an ankle injury ultimately forced his retirement.

"He was a beautiful horse and the older he got the nicer he was to be around," Sterling said.

"He was a family horse. Everybody in our family had a lot to do with him. The best thing I remember about him is that he could run.

"When people come over, I'll bring out the tapes of those races every once in a while, but they're getting a little worn out. I guess I'll have to have some new ones made."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Santa Anita Handicap

* When: Saturday

* Time: 4:15 p.m. (first post, noon)

* TV: FSW (5:30, delayed)

* Purse: $1 million

* Probable starters: Silver Charm, Gentlemen, Malek, Da Bull,

Bagshot.

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