The Flamingo Fountain behind the grandstand at Hialeah Park bears plaques citing previous winners of what is considered the first significant 3-year-old race of each new season. The fountain, built in 1957, is somewhat grotesque, but its tranquil surroundings draw Racing Form students, pot smokers, sun seekers, trysters, bird lovers, social pretenders and Jockey Club members. Eventually all walk around it, and many examine the plaques. On the north side are those for the years 1955-58, which are dedicated to Nashua, Needles, Bold Ruler and Tim Tam. These horses are the Flamingo's proof that it is a major race in the development of Kentucky Derby winners or favorites.
Last Saturday afternoon a colt named Honest Pleasure put his name up on the fountain, joining the elite of the '50s and other Churchill Downs victors—Lawrin, Citation, Carry Back, Northern Dancer and Foolish Pleasure.
No longer can Honest Pleasure be considered a horse with a name like another's. Erase all mental blocks about that. Do not fail to call him by his first name. "He wears his own underwear now," said an elderly racetracker lounging in the paddock after the Flamingo. "He is not Foolish Pleasure. Foolish Pleasure, he good. But this is Mr. Honest Pleasure. He some kinda horse."
It is still too early to put Honest Pleasure's photograph in the Racing Hall of Fame and light candles in front of it, but he did win the Flamingo by 11 lengths. In 47 runnings of the stake no horse had won so easily. Honest Pleasure also ran the fastest of all Flamingos by going 1‚⅛ miles in 1:46[4/5] over a wet-fast track while Jockey Braulio Baeza tried to play the part of human anchor. "My instructions," Baeza said afterward, "were to lay off the pace, second or third, and then move when the time was right. Maybe at the head of the stretch." Those orders were scrapped when the colt rolled away from the field on the first turn. But Baeza followed Trainer LeRoy Jolley's other instruction, one that was implicit—"Let's show everyone how good this horse really is."
The champion 2-year-old of 1975, Honest Pleasure has won his last seven races by an average margin of seven lengths. Of more importance perhaps is the fact that he has come back from a 3½-month layoff to win two races with enormous ease, by a total of 25 lengths. In the nine weeks remaining until he is tucked into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, what could come forth to challenge him?
"I took my shot," said Jack Gaver, the 35-year-old trainer of Greentree Stable's Flamingo entry, third-place finisher Johnny Appleseed. "Honest Pleasure is the best 3-year-old in the country, the best horse racing right now of any age. He won in a common gallop. I have a couple of horses I am high on. Johnny Appleseed is one and a colt named Charleston is the other. I have never seen a 3-year-old win like that in my life. I'm taking my colts to New Orleans. They'll start in the Louisiana Derby. In the weeks ahead I plan to be where Honest Pleasure is not."
Calumet Farm Trainer Reggie Cornell was another changing plans. "If you see Honest Pleasure in a race," Cornell said, "you won't see one of my horses competing against him unless something goes terribly wrong with him."
The Flamingo has always been a testing race, an early indicator of a 3-year-old's quality. Woody Stephens, who has trained stakes winners for decades, put Hang Ten into the race to find out how good—or bad—the colt was. "You never know what might happen," Stephens said before the start. "I feel that Honest Pleasure is the best horse. But you can't win if you are not competing. Maybe he will have trouble going around two turns, or not like the track, or maybe he has been away from a tough race for too long. I have to find out how deep the water is. If a horse wins the Flamingo impressively, it scares off other owners and they have second thoughts about pointing for the Kentucky Derby." Hang Ten was beaten by 21½ lengths in the Flamingo. "Water's damned deep," said Stephens. "Over my head."
Honest Pleasure's competition in the race was supposed to come from Proud Birdie, a son of 1967 Derby winner Proud Clarion. Proud Birdie had won both the Everglades and Bahamas Stakes, preps for the Flamingo. However, his popularity and press came largely from the remarks and comportment of his trainer, 36-year-old Rosemary (Pinky) Henderson. Pinky is 6'1" (at the racetrack's suggestion she wore a pink outfit on Flamingo Day); she is a witty woman who enjoys challenging the Establishment and who apparently is a fine trainer. She says what she feels and sends out a lot of winners. When Proud Birdie won the Bahamas Pinky became the first woman to train a stakes winner at Hialeah in 37 winters. She is the mother of two, a former horse show rider and schoolteacher. She may or may not have once been a cocktail waitress in Fort Lauderdale. That has been the backstretch rumor.
Last December she tried to phone in Proud Birdie's nomination to the Flamingo; the racetrack didn't answer. She decided to call back later but forgot, and thus had to pay $5,000 to make the colt a supplementary entry, instead of $100, which is the regular fee. "It was a mistake," Pinky says. "I just forgot. It wasn't a very smart mistake, but it was my own." Pinky has not made many errors. Proud Birdie cost $21,000 as a yearling and has won back $86,000.
"Before a race I'm nervous," Pinky says, "and before big races I take a little Valium and don't want anyone real close to me while my horse is running. That includes my husband."
In the Flamingo, Proud Birdie ran as if he had been tranquilized. He barely budged, moving only from sixth to fifth, and never menaced Honest Pleasure. "He's a heck of a racehorse," Pinky said. "Nobody was going to beat him."
Honest Pleasure will run in the Florida Derby on April 3 and then in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 22. If he wins those starts comfortably, come Saturday, May 1 he is sure to face a relatively small Kentucky Derby field—a recognition of ability that was not accorded Foolish Pleasure, who had to beat 14 others last May.
Jolley trains both Honest Pleasure and Foolish Pleasure, as well as the outstanding 3-year-old filly, Optimistic Gal. "People ask me how you get a bunch of horses like that," Jolley says. "I don't think you could get drunk enough on whiskey to believe you could be this lucky."
The Flamingo start was a bad one. Official Charles Camac, who sent the horses away, "quick triggered," causing a decent runner, Mount Sterling, to get tangled up and to unseat his jockey, Eddie Maple. "I sure won't be popular for saying this," Lou Rondinello, Mount Sterling's trainer, said later, "but I think we got jobbed." With Maple sitting on the ground, Baeza realized one of his stronger challengers was now out of it, and he moved Honest Pleasure to the top. The tall, long son of What a Pleasure (SI, Feb. 16) went the first six furlongs in 1:09, and by then he had an eight-length lead; after a mile in 1:33 4/5 he was still eight up. He was drawing away through the final eighth of a mile.
"I don't know how many derbies I have won," Baeza said coyly after the Flamingo. "They have lots of derbies, one for almost every state. Kentucky Derbies? One. With Chateaugay." Baeza smiled. "So far," he said.