Among his friends in Knoxville, Tenn., twinkle-eyed, 77-year-old John Lawson Greer, owner of Foolish Pleasure, is known as a highly amusing after-dinner raconteur and a loyal supporter of the First Baptist Church. According to a story that Greer tells, when a deacon of the church once wondered aloud whether contributions from the horse owner could be tainted in the eyes of the Lord because they might have come from racing, another churchman rushed to his defense. The money was most welcome, he said, "The only thing wrong is, 'taint enough."
This week, if Greer's generosity continues and reflects his racing success, the house of worship conceivably could be renamed the John L. Greer First Baptist Church, for the prosperous banker and baker took home a check for $209,600 from Churchill Downs after Foolish Pleasure humbled his critics—and there were many—and 14 rivals to score a superb victory in the 101st Kentucky Derby.
"I don't know why Foolish Pleasure shouldn't now be accepted as a great colt," said Greer after the race, obviously reacting to the doubts about the horse's true quality so often expressed by racing experts in the days and weeks preceding the Derby. These flowered after Foolish Pleasure finished third to Darby Dan Farm's Prince Thou Art and Sylvan Place in the Florida Derby, the only defeat he has ever suffered, and persisted after his hard-pressed victory over Bombay Duck in the Wood Memorial. Referring to the foot injuries Foolish Pleasure incurred in the Florida race, Greer said, "After all, he overcame difficulties that a lesser horse wouldn't have."
Greer is right. In becoming only the third Florida-bred to win the Kentucky Derby (Needles and Carry Back were the others), the grandson of Bold Ruler and Tom Fool established himself as a legitimate champion. Even when he won all seven of his races as a 2-year-old, he was not accepted without reservation, and after his loss in the mile-and-an-eighth Florida Derby the critics shook their heads and said he would not last the extra furlong of the mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs. His victory in the Wood, also at a mile and an eighth, did nothing to silence the critics, especially since the Darby Dan horses had not run. And Foolish Pleasure had yet to meet the two strong California contenders, Avatar and Diabolo, or the solid Master Derby, winner of the Louisiana Derby and conqueror—albeit in rain and mud—of the Darby Dan duo and Avatar in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
May 11, 1975
But last Saturday, before a crowd of 113,324—down 50,000 from the wild mob that attended the centennial Derby a year ago—and additional millions who tuned in as ABC went to the post at Churchill Downs for the first time, Foolish Pleasure put it all together once and for all. As he rolled to his 11th win in 12 starts and increased his bankroll to $673,515, the handsome bay colt, exquisitely trained by LeRoy Jolley and magnificently ridden by Jacinto Vasquez, soundly trounced the only two colts ever to finish in front of him (Prince Thou Art was sixth, Sylvan Place ninth). He also showed Avatar and Diabolo how to stay out of trouble in an important race and relegated them to second and third. He whipped Master Derby, who was fourth, by nearly seven lengths. As for Bombay Duck, who had given Foolish Pleasure such a tussle in the Wood Memorial, that dead-tired son of Nashua finished last in the 15-horse field.
This Derby was a wonderfully contested horse race in which there was a certain amount of rough stuff, some of it minor, some of it major, and a stretch run so exciting that the usually unflappable track announcer, Chic Anderson, got the horses confused and called Prince Thou Art instead of Foolish Pleasure as the winner mowed down his opposition in the last and most important furlong. "I don't get mixed up very often," said the embarrassed Anderson, as his listeners recalled the 1947 Preakness when Clem McCarthy told a radio audience that the winner was Jet Pilot instead of Faultless. ("Ladies and gentlemen, I have made a horrible mistake," said the contrite McCarthy.)
The buildup before the race was on the low-key side, with the trainers saying polite and appropriate things about their own horses and the opposition. And about their jockeys. Well, almost all trainers. John Campo, who has always been something of a backstretch lawyer since his early days with the late Eddie Neloy, did not think much of Jean Cruguet's ride aboard Campo's colt Media in the Wood (in which Media finished third) and made sure that everyone knew it. In turn, Cruguet did not think much of the trainer's reaction. "My owner [Max Gluck] likes to pick riders," said the portly Campo as he waddled around his barn area, "but despite this jock, I expect Media to run a good race—not necessarily to win. I'm having a nice time and I'm relaxed. As for the horse, when does a horse know if he's 3 to 5 or 20 to 1?" Media went off at 24 to 1 and finished a respectable fifth under Cruguet, a Frenchman who was considered talented enough to ride first string for Trainer Angel Penna in France for a couple of years.
The question-mark horse in the race was Round Stake. Holder of an erratic, generally unimpressive record, he was trained by Allen Jerkens, famous for major upsets, such as Beau Purple three times beating Kelso and the defeats of Secretariat by Onion and Prove Out. This was Jerkens' first Derby horse, and it did not seem right that people had been getting 80 to 1 on Round Stake in the winter book. "I'd be happy to be third or fourth," said the composed trainer. "I'd much rather he did it when people feel he can't, instead of going into the race too optimistically." The people felt he couldn't—Round Stake went off at 55 to 1—and he didn't, finishing 11th.
"I've got to think Foolish Pleasure is the legitimate favorite," Jerkens said. "He should be. He had a tough race in the Wood, and if he can stand up under that, he's obviously the best. And remember, no other colt has been running any farther than he has with weight up. When you've lost only once, you must still be the best."
The Western invaders were impressive but not spectacular. Diabolo's trainer, Sid Martin, was counting heavily on Jockey Laffit Pincay, who was replacing Bill Shoemaker, because "the colt wasn't responding to Shoe, whose forte is not being a strong rider, whereas Pincay is." Tommy Doyle, Avatar's trainer, quipped that he would have preferred the race to be held in California, but "seeing as how we can't move it, we'll have to race it here in Kentucky." Then, in response to suggestions that the current crop of 3-year-olds might be just ordinary, or even a bad bunch, he said, "How can anyone say that when they haven't had a chance to prove themselves bad yet? If these are bad horses, I'd love to have a barnful of bad horses like Foolish Pleasure. He is very tough."
Thus, for LeRoy Jolley, it was pressure week. But he responded well to the endless questions and special requests of the large, news-hungry press corps. Jolley was concentrating on training his colt to break off slowly and finish with a real quick lick, but he went out of his way to be courteous. "This is only my second trip to the Derby," Jolley pointed out. "The first was with Ridan in 1962. I was listed as trainer, but it was really a joint venture with my father, Moody. Ridan was fiery and uncontrollable, just the opposite of this very manageable colt. They call this the Run for the Roses, but in Ridan's year it was run for your life to be around him."
Jolley had special praise for Jockey Vasquez. "Vasquez has given a great deal of himself to this colt," he said. And, saluting others on his staff, "That goes, too, for my assistant trainer, Henry Gervais, Frank Morris, the groom, exercise boy John Nazareth and the blacksmiths, Ernie Pinto and Butch Vinas. What we've done here is a team effort—all the way. We've all been concerned about the colt's feet. Twice a day we treat them with iodine and turpentine. He responds to the treatment like any fine athlete."
The fine athlete went off as the 2-to-l Derby favorite under a cloudy sky that contained an overdue rainfall, which held off until half an hour after the race was over. At the start Foolish Pleasure did get off slowly. Bombay Duck, the sprinter, breaking from post position 11, shot to the lead and led the pack through the first quarter in a blistering 22 seconds, the half in :45[2/5] and the six furlongs in 1:10[3/5]. Rushing Man, and later Avatar, stalked Bombay Duck through the first part of the race. Meanwhile, Vasquez, using his head, had Foolish Pleasure back in the pack, saving ground on the inside for most of the trip. Jolley said, "I was surprised at first that Foolish Pleasure didn't get to running easily, and I thought maybe he didn't like the track too well. But when I saw us running around eighth and then sixth, saving ground, and also that the leader had ticked off such a fast pace, burning on the front end, I thought we're not that badly off."
When Bombay Duck had enough—his rider said angrily that he had been bothered by things thrown and waved by the unruly infield crowd—he slowed down suddenly and quickly faded to last. Diabolo, whom Pincay had launched from fourth place with a tremendous drive around the far turn, took the lead. Shoemaker and Avatar, who had been close to the pace, went right with him and for a few strides the California horses were one-two. Master Derby, who had moved up from eighth, tried to stay with the pair, and then Vasquez moved with Foolish Pleasure. Whether or not the Californians moved too soon and too fast will be the subject of debate around the tracks for some time, but what won't be questioned ever is Vasquez' timing as he rolled up in fourth place at the head of the long stretch, still saving ground on the rail. With a brilliant surge, he drove inside Master Derby and outside Avatar, near the rail, and Diabolo, right alongside him.
Had Vasquez decided to sit tight behind this pair as they neared the eighth pole instead of swinging out there is no telling what might have happened. For just as Foolish Pleasure cranked himself up for the final furlong, the Californians went into an odd little dance of their own. First Diabolo bobbled, and then, recovering, lugged in on Avatar. Almost as if in self-defense Avatar bumped Diabolo, knocking him completely off stride and just as completely out of contention. Avatar, who was turned almost sideways for an instant, hung on gamely to finish 1¾ lengths behind Foolish Pleasure, who had been clear of all the trouble and found himself a smooth, clear path to the wire. Diabolo struggled home in third place, but came back gimpy, his left foreleg bleeding. A stewards' inquiry looked into the Diabolo-Avatar collision, but both Shoemaker and Pincay agreed that it had not altered the result of the race. "The way the winner blew by us," said Shoe, "I didn't think I could beat him anyway." Echoed Pincay, "I don't think it probably made any difference in the outcome."
What was most puzzling to all three riders was Chic Anderson's boo-boo on the race call. Shoemaker heard Anderson through the track public-address loudspeaker and until he returned to unsaddle he thought the horse that had blown past him was Prince Thou Art. Vasquez heard Anderson, too, and said to himself, "If Prince Thou Art is rushing that fast on the outside, he better hurry up, because that wire is in front of me right now, and I'm about to be the winner of this Derby."
Braulio Baeza, who was aboard Prince Thou Art, heard the miscall—all the way back in sixth place. The Florida Derby winner wasn't going anywhere, and it amused Baeza to be told he was in such great position. "I didn't know where I was," he said.
It may be argued that had Diabolo and Avatar not engaged in their free-for-all, one or even both of them might have hung on long enough to hold off Foolish Pleasure. But they probably would not have. Vasquez had the right head of steam up, and nothing was going to catch Foolish Pleasure this time as he uncorked a final quarter in a tick over 25 seconds. His time for the race was an unsensational 2:02—Secretariat's record is 1:59[2/5]; Cannonade won a year ago in 2:04—but the time was really of no great concern. Nothing mattered for Greer, Jolley, Vasquez and the rest of the fellows around their barn but beating the 14 challengers, and this they did with dispatch.
"Until an athlete does something," said Jolley when it was all over, "you don't know if he can do it. But now it seems that whatever the others can do, Foolish Pleasure can do it just a little bit better."
Greer, possibly thinking of what he might have to say this week to the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Knoxville, smiled broadly as his young trainer—Jolley is 37—held the attention of his audience. Greer was looking ahead to May 17 and the Preakness. He said wistfully, "How we'd love to win the Preakness. Ridan lost it by that much. And then there's the Belmont. Anyone who says he wouldn't like to win the Triple Crown is a damn fool."