A month ago even dedicated race-trackers had barely heard of Pleasant Colony. After all, the colt had run all of two races in 1981, won neither of them and had an unimpressive career record of only one victory in five stakes—and that on a disqualification. Pleasant Colony didn't look like a runner, either; his ears drooped, his ribs stuck out and he acted up in post parades. On afternoons when he was supposed to be sharp and ready for competition he dozed in his stall. Then on April 18, Pleasant Colony, a 13-1 shot, came flying through the stretch at Aqueduct to win the Wood Memorial by three lengths and set off a chain reaction that resulted in a herd of horses starting in the Kentucky Derby.
Now just about everyone knows Pleasant Colony's name. Last Saturday afternoon he ran his third sparkling race in a row to triumph in the 106th Preakness at Pimlico and become the 22nd horse in the last 62 years to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Two weeks from now he'll try to make a lasting name for himself by winning the 1½ mile Belmont Stakes. No easy task. Of those 21 previous Derby and Preakness winners, only 11 took the next long step successfully. Two years ago, you might recall, Spectacular Bid failed; since 1958, Tim Tarn, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Kauai King, Majestic Prince and Canonero II also came up short.
The 1981 Preakness was a strange but dramatic race. Pleasant Colony, the 3-2 favorite, and Bold Ego, the 10th-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby and the 7-2 second choice, fought the length of the stretch virtually flank to flank, Pleasant Colony on the outside, Bold Ego on the inside. Before reaching the top of the stretch, Pleasant Colony had circled much of the field in a giant rush and it looked as if he would easily go to the front. But Bold Ego, who had led from the quarter, dug in and refused to yield. For a few seconds it seemed that Pleasant Colony was merely hanging, but that wasn't the case. Rather, he had met a valiant adversary who wasn't about to give in. Both were running very fast, and when Pleasant Colony finally won by a length he knew he'd been in a horse race. His jockey, Jorge Velasquez, certainly did. "I thought that we would go swoosh right by Bold Ego," he said after his first Preakness victory in six tries, "and when we didn't, I thought, 'Hey, what's going on here? Bold Ego, you're supposed to stop!' He ran a dead-game race." Velasquez should know about dead-game races in the Triple Crown. He's the man who rode Alydar against Affirmed.
New Mexico-bred Bold Ego had won seven of his eight starts as a 2-year-old. In the Kentucky Derby, he got hooked up in a speed duel with Top Avenger, who set a record for the half mile (:45[1/5]). But the two had blazed along at such a pace that half a mile later Top Avenger had dropped to 19th. Bold Ego took the lead at the mile before falling back. Trainer Jack Van Berg was unhappy with jockey John Lively's ride in the Derby, but he had enough faith in his horse to ship him to Baltimore.
May 24, 1981
During the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness many racing people studied videotapes of the Kentucky event. One very interested student was John Campo, Pleasant Colony's not so quiet, shy and humble trainer. "John ran the Derby over and over," says Irwin Feiner, a horse owner and a friend of Campo's. "He looked at it so much that I stopped counting how many times when the number got to 311."
The tape was evidently revealing because three days before the Preakness Campo said, "If you look at Bold Ego's race, he isn't any 10th-place horse. Van Berg is too shrewd to run back off a 10th-place finish in the Derby unless he thinks he has a real shot going the shorter distance of the Preakness. Pimlico favors speed and Bold Ego has genuine speed. But how far can he carry it?"
Campo wasn't the only horseman with respect for Bold Ego. Jack Gaver Jr., trainer of second-place Derby finisher Woodchopper, and David Whiteley, the conditioner of the well-regarded Highland Blade, thought highly of the colt, too. They were right about Bold Ego, though the race proved to be a near disaster for their own horses. Highland Blade finished sixth, beaten 11 lengths, while Woodchopper ended up 11th in the field of 13, 16 lengths back.
"Our horses eliminated each other," Whiteley said to Gaver afterward. They certainly had. They bumped each other almost savagely on the first turn and again going into the backstretch. "I was squeezed in so tight between horses that I thought I was going down," said Woodchopper's rider, Eddie Delahoussaye. "We had a rotten trip. It's just lucky the horse wasn't hurt seriously."
And so, while several horses played bump and run, Bold Ego went into the lead, a target for the others. Pleasant Colony, although bothered considerably himself and forced to run wide, didn't get nearly as far behind as he had in the Derby (18 lengths); he was never farther than seven lengths off the lead. When the two finally battled in the stretch, they equaled the record for the fastest final [3/16]ths in Preakness history (:18[1/5]). A few hours after the race had been run, Van Berg stood by his horse's stall in the chill evening and summed up. "I'm proud of Bold Ego," he said. "He ran his heart out and John Lively rode a perfect race. But take your hat off to the winner. Take it off and wave it hard. Pleasant Colony has done this three times in a row."
In just one spectacular month Pleasant Colony has stuffed $616,280 into his saddlebags—or those of owner Thomas Mellon Evans, to be precise—and put himself in reach of the Triple Crown, only one race away from joining the likes of Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. In that month Pleasant Colony has run against 37 horses and beaten them all. Woodchopper couldn't catch him from behind in Louisville, and Bold Ego couldn't stay in front of him in Baltimore. And he did it all as a comparative youngster. While most foals hit the ground in January, Pleasant Colony was born on May 4, 1978, making him a very late foal. He won the Derby before he was really a 3-year-old, his true birthday coming two days later. Can it be that what Campo says is really true? That "Pleasant Colony is just starting to get good now and he will get better"? The Belmont will provide the answer.