SI Vault
Ernest Havemann
April 26, 1976
Honest Pleasure, the magnificent Kentucky Derby favorite, has but one disconcerting flaw: bred to run, he fights hard to run all-out all the time
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April 26, 1976

The Horse That Could Be 'too Damn Fast'

Honest Pleasure, the magnificent Kentucky Derby favorite, has but one disconcerting flaw: bred to run, he fights hard to run all-out all the time

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If ever there was a solid favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Bold Forbes notwithstanding, it is Honest Pleasure. Off his past performances, including his smashing victories in the Flamingo and the Florida Derby, Honest Pleasure looks like what racegoers call a lock, a shoo-in, a fuzzy. But before you do what racegoers call risk the family jewels, or bet with both hands, be forewarned. Honest Pleasure has a problem.

The problem is a strange and ironic one. Hard for a casual racing fan to comprehend. Sounds preposterous. The trouble with Honest Pleasure is that he runs too damn fast.

Centuries of selective horse breeding have culminated in what may be the ultimate in speed and power. Honest Pleasure carries the genes of such great forebears as Bold Ruler, Nasrullah, Blenheim II, Solario. Somehow the genes have all come together to create a magnificent dark bay animal who is exciting to look at when standing still, breathtaking to watch in motion.

Honest Pleasure is big, but not too big. He has a large and handsome head, marvelous shoulders, broad hindquarters rippling with muscle. The most captious critic of horseflesh could walk around him all day without finding a flaw.

When he runs he takes giant strides and he takes them quickly. Whoosh, whoosh. His hooves scarcely seem to touch the ground; he seems to be floating effortlessly on a cushion of air. In his last six races he has been in front from start to finish and has won by an average of nearly eight lengths. In the Flamingo at Hialeah in February, only his second start as a 3-year-old, he went the three-quarters in 1:09 flat and the full mile and an eighth in 1:46[4/5], the fastest time in the race's 47-year history. Fantastic.

Just how fantastic can be gleaned from the figures compiled by Sam Engelberg, a Florida-based professional handicapper with half a century of experience watching and rating the horses. The "number" Engelberg put on Honest Pleasure's performance in the Flamingo—a figure adjusted for such factors as weight carried, track condition and even the direction and velocity of the wind—was 315. The only other horse Engelberg ever flattered with an equally high number was the brilliant but erratic Coaltown, after Coaltown's best race way back in 1948. Secretariat never rated higher than 310 on Engelberg's scale.

Engelberg says flatly, "At this stage Honest Pleasure is the best I've ever seen." Says another veteran handicapper, "Just looking at the cold figures, it's hard to believe that this horse is for real."

But there's the rub. One has to go beyond the cold figures and consider the matter of temperament. And Honest Pleasure has inherited the spirit as well as the body of an indomitable competitor. He is all business and no nonsense. A great racehorse is supposed to run—and Honest Pleasure wants to bust out and run. The trouble is that no horse can run at top speed all the way, and still win at a mile and a quarter against the kind of opposition Honest Pleasure is sure to face at Churchill Downs on May 1.

The question is this: Can his trainer, LeRoy Jolley, teach Honest Pleasure to put prudence ahead of pride and slow down a little in the first part of the race? Can his jockey, Braulio Baeza, hold him back, rate him, force him to conserve some of his strength for the stretch?

If not, Honest Pleasure may be by far the best horse in the Derby—in fact even the best-equipped horse in all history—and still lose.

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