It Was a Pleasure - By John Califano

(Originally published in the April 24, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

Shouldn’t there be mostly happy memories of a champion at 2, Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner at 3, and victor over the great Forego at 4? Normally, yes, but in Foolish Pleasure’s case, the fond remembrances haven’t come easily.

The bay colt, by What a Pleasure (by Bold Ruler) out of Fool-Me-Not (by Tom Fool), was bred by Waldemar Farms and foaled at that Florida nursery March 23, 1972. Owned by John L. Greer, Foolish Pleasure became a leading runner right out of the gate, doing whatever was expected of him, and eventually going head-to-head in a highly publicized match race with his only comparable peer, the great and beloved filly Ruffian. Consequently, he would be largely remembered for that ill-fated race that resulted in Ruffian’s fatal breakdown.

Here were two examples of equine athleticism and beauty, caught in a maelstrom of media and public frenzy over which sex was supposedly superior, with their contest more spectacle than sport; and in a real sense, Foolish Pleasure was also a casualty—his sterling reputation dimmed, his place in history tinged with sadness. It’s a harsh reality he didn’t deserve. And like Ruffian, over an entire career, Foolish Pleasure gave more joy than heartache. In an attempt to re-illuminate the light of his once shinning star, it is appropriate to reflect on the brilliance that was Foolish Pleasure, this colt with the pointed-out toes and odd-moving gait who consistently drew away from both his opponents and detractors.

Between his 2-year-old debut April 4, 1974, and March 1, 1975, the LeRoy Jolley-trained Foolish Pleasure was undefeated in nine starts, seven of which were graded stakes, among these four grade I races. He had been named champion 2-year-old male and was winter-book favorite for the Derby.

As a 3-year-old, Foolish Pleasure appeared poised to continue his dominance with two early victories, notably the Flamingo Stakes (gr. I), before finally experiencing his first loss in the Florida Derby (gr. I), and coming out of the affair with cuts to the frogs of his front feet. Less than a month later he won the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) from post 15.

On May 3, 1975, the Derby favorite joined 14 other runners in the gate for the 101st running of the race. With Jacinto Vasquez up, and breaking from post position three, he was far back early, as California invaders Avatar and Diabolo hooked up around the far turn into the stretch. Foolish Pleasure began to move up steadily, and as Diabolo lugged in and bumped Avatar, Foolish Pleasure blew by, creating a 1 3/4-length separation from Avatar at the wire.

As Foolish Pleasure bounded toward the greatest win of his life, track announcer Chic Anderson, always impeccable but still none the less human, inadvertently called the wrong horse coming home, then quickly corrected himself as the eventual winner raced toward the finish.

Foolish Pleasure had emphatically refuted his critics who felt he wouldn’t get the 1 1/4-mile distance and had also succeeded in winning the race after five previous Flamingo/Wood winners had failed. He was again made the favorite for the 100th running of the Preakness Stakes and also the Belmont Stakes (both gr. I).

Foolish Pleasure finished second, a length behind Master Derby at Pimlico. Jolley was not happy after the race, and complained about the surface conditions, infield crowd, and even the Clydesdales, present during the day’s festivities. After making a strong late bid, the colt lost by a neck to Avatar in the Belmont. So much for distance limitations.

In 26 starts over three years, Foolish Pleasure recorded 16 firsts, four seconds, three thirds, and earnings of $1,216,705. The many stakes winners he later sired included Baiser Vole and What Nonsense, champions in Europe; and Canadian juvenile champion Bayford. Also among his get were Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap (gr. I) winners Marfa and Kiri’s Clown, respectively. Foolish Pleasure was damsire of more than 40 stakes winners.

Foolish Pleasure was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1995, the year after his death. Perhaps when the horse left this world and entered the next, the first to greet him was Ruffian. Now they’re together again, and this time, in peace.

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