At five o'clock in the morning last Saturday, Honest Pleasure was led quietly from his stall on the backstretch at Saratoga and around the track to the tree-shaded paddock behind the grandstand where, before each race on the day's program, the horses are saddled in view of the crowd.
Normally, at that hour a light breeze ruffles the leaves of the giant old elms, but on this morning it was dead calm. The few people up and stirring knew that horses and racegoers alike would be in for punishingly hot weather that afternoon when the Travers, the oldest horse race in America, would be run for the 107th time at the country's most ancient racecourse, which holds heat like a tin cup.
Hot weather and sweating go together, and one of Honest Pleasure's problems has been that even in cool weather he gets edgy and fretful before a race and becomes what racing people call "washy"—showing an excess of nervous perspiration. For three months now, ever since the colt's stunning defeats in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Trainer LeRoy Jolley had had Honest Pleasure walked nearly every morning to the paddocks at Belmont and Saratoga in the hope that he would become familiar with them and sufficiently at ease there so that he would not leave his race in the saddling area.
This was all part of a long, slow process by which Jolley hoped to bring the colt back to the superb form that had made him the best 2-year-old colt in the country last year and that had made him this past spring the strongest Kentucky Derby favorite in more than a quarter of a century. Honest Pleasure had won nine straight races before the Derby, had won more than $600,000 and had never finished worse than second in his dozen starts. He had led from wire to wire in most of them and had routed his opposition by such margins as six, seven, eight, 11 and 14 lengths.
August 29, 1976
But in the Derby he had been upset by Puerto Rican-owned Bold Forbes, who had outsprinted him from the gate to take the lead, had maintained a blistering pace and had held on to win by a length. Some observers, possibly including Jolley, blamed Jockey Braulio Baeza, who 10 days earlier in the Blue Grass Stakes had all but strangled the colt in his effort to control the animal's raging speed.
In any case, two weeks later, in the Preakness. Bold Forbes outsprinted Honest Pleasure again in another speed duel. Burned out, the Puerto Rican hero eventually ended up third in that race, but Honest Pleasure faded to a grinding, disheartening fifth. He didn't even run in the Belmont, which Bold Forbes won, and when he finally returned to the track in midsummer he lost both the races he entered, showing little of his old fire. Baeza rode him in the first of these efforts; then Jolley, obviously discontented with Baeza and squabbling with his agent, Lenny Goodman, gave the riding assignment to a lesser-known jockey named Craig Perret.
From a sure bet before the Derby to be 3-year-old of the year, Honest Pleasure had fallen behind both Bold Forbes and Majestic Light. The latter is a late-blooming son of the 1969 Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince and had won three important stakes races this summer, including the Monmouth Invitational, in which Honest Pleasure had finished third. Bold Forbes, nursing an injured right hind hoof, was at Saratoga but would not be in the Travers (and probably would not run again until October, at the earliest), but Majestic Light was entered, and so was McKenzie Bridge, a solid horse who had finished a strong second in the Belmont. The Midsummer Derby, as Saratogans sometimes like to call the Travers, was shaping into a first-class battle royal.
Despite the stifling heat, 31,255 people, the third largest crowd in Saratoga's century-plus of racing, jammed the lovely old track in upstate New York. They made Majestic Light the even-money favorite and sent off Honest Pleasure, who moved about the paddock calmly before the race and seemed much the handsomest horse in the field, as the second choice. It was the first time in 10 races that he had not been the favorite, and his 2-to-l odds were the longest he had gone off at since last autumn.
As though stung by this humiliation, Honest Pleasure came out of the starting gate in a rush, the way he likes to. He quickly took the lead and halfway round the clubhouse turn was two lengths ahead of the field. He was running fast but at his own pace, unchallenged and unforced by the threatening presence of a Bold Forbes. Perret let him go, and down the backstretch of the mile-and-a-quarter race he opened a six-length lead. Majestic Light and McKenzie Bridge, who was third favorite at 9 to 2, were far back, and with Honest Pleasure running so smoothly and strongly it looked as though he might go off and steal the race.
But as the field came around the far turn and into the stretch, the leader's margin shrank rapidly to two lengths, with the sixth-place Majestic Light only 5½ lengths back and in position on the outside to make his run. Now Honest Pleasure was being challenged, and the uneasy feeling rose that he would quit again, as he had in the late stages of the Preakness.
They straightened out in the stretch for the run to the wire, and Perret whacked Honest Pleasure with his whip. The colt responded. He opened his lead over long-shot Romeo, ridden by Baeza, to three lengths and then, at the finish, to four. It was Majestic Light who faded this time, finishing seventh in the eight-horse field, just behind McKenzie Bridge. And no wonder. Honest Pleasure's time for the Travers was a blistering 2:00⅕ not only a new stakes record but also by four lengths the fastest mile and a quarter ever run at Saratoga.
Bold Forbes was still in his barn, still the 3-year-old horse of the year, pending further developments (which could turn out to be syndication and an early departure from competition to stud duties). But Honest Pleasure was back—his earnings up to $734,439—and the possibility existed, slim though it might be at the moment, for another mano a mano showdown between the two in the fall. That would determine, once and for all, which is the better colt.
"I haven't really made up my mind which way to go with him," said Jolley Saturday evening. "I could put him on the grass and aim him for the United Nations and the Man o' War and maybe the Canadian International. Or I could send him into the fall races against older horses, like the Woodward, the Marlboro Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.