Probably no winter horse race for maturing 3-year-olds who have their eyes on the Kentucky Derby carries more prestige than the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah. Not only is it rich ($100,000 added) but its mile-and-an-eighth distance tests the youngsters and shows which of them have the speed and stamina demanded by the Derby's mile and a quarter. It is no surprise then that the roster of Flamingo winners is an impressive one, glittering with such names as Citation, Nashua, Bold Ruler, Tim Tarn, Carry Back, Northern Dancer and Buckpasser.
But until last Saturday's 46th Flamingo no winner of this key race had ever had an undefeated record at this point in his career. This means, of course, that John L. Greer's Foolish Pleasure is a very special colt indeed. He has won all nine of his starts, and his performance in the Flamingo indicates that he is more than likely to keep his streak going. True, at the end of the race he did seem a bit tired and was being slowly overtaken by the 16-to-1 shot Prince Thou Art. This led some to conclude that Prince Thou Art might be better Triple Crown material. Foolish Pleasure's trainer, LeRoy Jolley, disagreed. "The Flamingo was only his second race in 146 days," he said. "It was his first time ever around two turns, and he always has had a habit of pulling himself up when he takes the lead. Considering all that, I've got to conclude that his race was impressive, every bit as impressive as I had hoped it would be."
It was also a race that unfolded, Jolley said, "just about the way we figured it would, off the past performances. We knew there would be plenty of early speed. I told my rider, Jacinto Vasquez, to take back off the pace, take his time before making his move. And he did. Vasquez rode the colt perfectly, as he always has."
The pace was set by Ascetic, winner of the Everglades Stakes a few weeks earlier, closely followed by Penny Tweedy's Somethingfabulous, a half brother to Secretariat, whose name just gets under racing's 18-letter maximum. Vasquez, who complained later that he had been jammed a bit going into the first turn, steadied the odds-on favorite in the middle of the 10-horse field on the backstretch. Ascetic led through a mile and then retired, but Somethingfabulous took over and held on a while longer. The Canadian colt, L'Enjoleur, the 4-to-1 second choice, was going well and had moved up to third, and for a moment on the far turn it seemed that he and Foolish Pleasure, who was coming on, would duel down the stretch by themselves.
But this was not L'Enjoleur's day, or perhaps it was simply that Canada's Horse of the Year in 1974 was in the wrong company. Vasquez rolled Foolish Pleasure past everything and opened up a two-length lead. Prince Thou Art, who had been last in the backstretch, put on his strong finish but still ended up a length and three quarters behind. Somethingfabulous was third, Sylvan Place fourth, Hunka Papa fifth and the tiring L'Enjoleur a disappointing sixth. Ascetic ended up ninth, behind everything except Top Horn, who had seemed so much of a threat that he was sent postward at odds of 174 to 1.
And so the 27,983 people at the track and millions watching on television saw what Trainer Jolley and Owner Greer have to play with. The two men seem an almost perfect combination to be burdened with the pressure of having the Derby favorite in their care. Both are naturally optimistic men, yet both look realistically to the future. Greer, a 76-year-old native of Knoxville, where he is a baking company executive, said before the Flamingo, "I know this colt is going to get beat some day. They all do, you know. When it happens it won't kill me. I've had disappointments before. I've had horses of mine get beat after going off at odds of one to five. But I've had a lot of fun, too."
Some of the fun—and a lot of the disappointment—came from a big, handsome, headstrong colt named Ridan, who would have won the 1962 Flamingo if Sunrise County, running wide coming out of the stretch turn, had not tried to herd him into the grandstand. Greer was a one-third owner of Ridan, and Jolley's father Moody trained him. The colt was difficult to handle. Bill Hartack rode him for a while, then Manuel Ycaza gave it a whirl. Ridan was an even-money favorite to win the Kentucky Derby that spring but ran third to Decidedly. A couple of weeks later he might have won the Preakness in a photo finish had not Ycaza decided to make his elbow a permanent part of John Rotz's midsection. Rotz was aboard Greek Money, and they got under the wire first. Three months later, in the Travers at Saratoga, Ridan went head and head for the full mile and a quarter with Jaipur and lost by a nose in what veteran Trainer Max Hirsch called the greatest horse race he had ever seen.
Fun and disappointment. LeRoy Jolley, working with his father, was a keen observer of all the Ridan episodes. He is grateful now, to say the least, that Foolish Pleasure, a heavy-bodied son of What a Pleasure and the Tom Fool mare Fool-Me-Not, is no Ridan type, not at all difficult to train. "You don't have to struggle with this one," he said one morning last week while watching his big bay colt cool out after a work. "All the sons of What a Pleasure are workable. Of course, with an undefeated colt there is no letup on pressure. You can't afford a sloppy performance. And you never know how your horse will face up to a major challenge. But I think we're doing the right thing with him. We didn't drain him at two, and he's matured just about right."
Foolish Pleasure's path to Kentucky and the first Saturday in May is still being plotted. There is not much concern about how he will handle an unfamiliar racecourse; his victories last year came at six different tracks. For his next start, he most likely will carry his $375,335 bankroll a few miles up the south Florida coastline to Gulfstream for the March 29 Florida Derby. After that he will go either to New York for the Wood Memorial on April 19 or to Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. for the Blue Grass Stakes on April 24. Jolley says, "Sticking to equal-weight races like the Wood, where all entries carry the same 126 pounds, means you are giving away as little advantage as possible. If we go to Keeneland instead, I think we'd have to carry 126 in the Blue Grass and give away as much as 12 pounds to some of the others. But Keeneland usually has better weather in April than New York, and it's a shorter ship from there to Louisville for the Derby. We'll have to think about it for a while."
In any case, Jolley and Greer obviously have the horse to beat. He has the speed to get position early, the punch to get to his rivals late; he goes off slow and finishes fast. The only question seems to be whether he will be able to handle the added furlong in the Derby. "I don't know if it will bother him or not," said a smiling Jolley after the Flamingo, "or whether it will help some of the others. But when you're 9 for 9, it doesn't seem to matter much. It's just the next challenge along the way."