Remembering John Forsythe

Ron Parker

One of the interesting sidelights of being a writer in any sport is getting to meet the celebrities that are involved with it.  Cover football in L.A., you get James Garner.  But horse racing in particular attracts a unique blend of celebrities who have an active interest in the sport, and while I’ve never had to opportunity to met less involved superstars such as Liz Taylor or Old Blue Eyes, I’ve certainly had the chance to meet more involved celebrities that other people might kill for the chance to meet in person.

But it’s not just the star attraction–though from a writer’s viewpoint they certainly make good copy–there’s also the personal realization that for the most part they are simply nice people.  Horse racing has this unique quality, to equalize the people who love it, no matter how great or small their stature in life.

Telly Savalas was always gracious, though I suspect that after I interviewed him at three different tracks he was asking his body guard if perhaps I might be a network hit man disguised as a racing writer.  Jack Klugman is an excellent example.  If you ever meet the man and want to see his eyes light up, just ask him how Jaklin Klugman is doing on the farm he’s already expanding.

But of all the nice people I’ve met in racing, no celebrity surpasses John Forsythe.

Which is why I refuse to sit with my wife, Ellen, and watch Dynasty.

 You see, my problem with Dynasty is that Forsythe tends to scowl a lot.  Whereas the John Forsythe I know smiles a lot.  A whole lot.

Oh, I’ve watched a few episodes, but they inevitably bother me.  The last one I watched I ended up firing little plastic hand grenades at Alexis that bounced off the television screen, much to the amusement of our cat.  But this Alexis is not a nice person, and she was picking on a friend of ours.  No wonder the man scowls a lot on camera.

Forsythe is, of course, no stranger to most people reading this magazine.  He hosts our Eclipse Awards.  He has owned and bred Thoroughbreds.  As a matter of fact, his knowledge of bloodlines would amaze you.

But it’s our personal encounters that never cease to amaze me.  The first time I met him was at Golden Gate Fields.  Ellen was covering a race that Forsythe had a horse in, and she wanted some quotes.  Of course, the ever efficient press box didn’t even know he was at the track, but we managed to figure it out and locate him in the rather small director’s room.

This, in itself, became an ongoing joke; we still tease retired jockey Art Lobato, who works in the media area, by asking him, “Is John Forsythe here today?”  He gets a laugh out of it and I especially like to say it loudly when I see him in the turf club.  You’d be amazed at the grumpy looking people, devouring their free booze, who perk up and start looking around when they hear that name.

Still, that first meeting was a little strange.  Ellen had worked in track publicity for two years prior to this encounter and I was no stranger to the director’s room, but on this day we got a guardian of the sanctuary who refused to let us in.  We finally managed to convince him that we’d probably get thrown out of the NTWA if we didn’t get to talk to Forsythe, so he grudgingly gave Forsythe the message and Forsythe promptly came out of the director’s room.

The three of us stood there while the guard chewed his fingernails, or whatever it is inconsiderate guards do, and we talked of horses and bloodlines and our love of the sport.  This went on for possibly half an hour without it ever dawning on the guard that he might be forcing an inconvenience on Forsythe by not simply letting us in.  Several little old ladies walking through the turf club spotted us and sheepishly asked him for autographs.  He responded graciously and they all floated away on a cloud, while the guard kept chewing on his nails.

As a result of this conversation, Ellen subsequently wrote an article for The California Horseman titled “Just Targa’s Owner,” which is how we viewed the man; not so much a celebrity as a dedicated horseman.  He wrote Ellen a kind note about it and we hoped we might run into him again one day to thank him for the time.

It was at the first Breeders’ Cup, at Hollywood Park, that we encountered him again.  Well, initially, I was the one who encountered him.  Ellen and I were in an auxiliary press box that had been set up for various and sundry media overflow from places like Kalamazoo and Altoona, people we didn’t know and vice versa.  Since we had enough work to do, I preferred to keep it that way.  But as I was wandering through the turf club, away from this journalistic haven, I ran into Forsythe.

“Where’s that lovely wife of yours?” he asked.  I allowed as how she was sitting behind a typewriter in No Man’s Land and I’d bring her out if he wanted to say hello.  He insisted that I lead him to her.  So now you have a picture of a bunch of strangers who were trying to figure out what to write as they nibbled on their free lunch boxes in this slightly isolated section when I return with John Forsythe in tow.  If you think that didn’t turn a few heads, then you’re not paying attention.

The fun part was that Ellen didn’t see us coming right away, she simply looked up from her typewriter and there was Blake Carrington.  So we chatted, and several media types who didn’t know us asked me if I could get Forsythe to pose for photographs, which, of course, he gladly did.  I don’t think any of them ever bothered to ask who we were, but the incident sure raised our resident stature a lot.

It wasn’t until the third Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita that we once again met Forsythe.  We were stuck in another one of those auxiliary press boxes that was about where bats get nose bleed when I told Ellen that I was going to the turf club to make a bet and, if I could find him, simply say hello to Forsythe.  She gave me an embarrassed look.  “Don’t you dare bring him here,” she instructed me, “the man’s time is valuable.  Just tell him I said hello.”

These were instructions I intended to follow when I did, in fact, find Forsythe.  “Ellen just wanted to say hi,” I told him as he was walking away from a table of about 15 presumed friends.

“Well, let’s go see her,” he replied.

“John, I can’t, she’s kill me.  She doesn’t want to feel like she’s imposing.”

Forsythe simply smiled.  “Where is she?”

So I, almost reluctantly, began leading John Forsythe out of the turf club in the general direction of our location, except I was a bit confused about which way to go.  I mentioned this to Forsythe, who was dutifully following me while shaking hands with anyone who recognized him.  “No problem,” he allowed, “I see a tour guide.

“Bob, can you show us the way to your auxiliary press box?”

Bob Strub looked a bit confused, but he pointed us in the right direction.

As we were going up a lengthy flight of stairs making small talk, I mentioned that only a few weeks earlier Ellen and I had caught one of his movies on television, a less than impressive science fantasy number called Mysterious Two.

What had caught our attention was a line he had that seemed fitting for the Breeders’ Cup: “Are you here for the event?”

It seemed to amuse him and by the time we got above the bats we caught Ellen by surprise.  Several people with mouths slowly opening watched as he walked up to her, tapped her on the shoulder and said, “I’m here for the event.”

The three of us watched Lady’s Secret do her thing before he had to leave, which was when I got the look I expected from Ellen.

“I told you not to drag John Forsythe around the track just to see  me,” she chided. “You know he has more important things to do.”

“Look,” I replied, “the man absolutely insisted.  Are you going to argue with John Forsythe?”

She had a thoughtful look.  “How is it possible for someone in that position to be so pleasant and caring?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but when we get back home I’m going to get some more plastic grenades and absolutely destroy Alexis.”

This article originally appeared in the March 1987 issue of Horseman’s Journal.  We reprinted it in Pedlines #150 (May-June 2010) in our remembrance tribute at the time of his passing.