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NICE TO BE THE DERBY FAVORITE, BUT...
William Leggett
May 03, 1976
Mighty Honest Pleasure faces not only a quality race-alike front-runner, Bold Forbes, at Churchill Downs this weekend, but also some upsetting Derby history
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May 03, 1976

Nice To Be The Derby Favorite, But...

Mighty Honest Pleasure faces not only a quality race-alike front-runner, Bold Forbes, at Churchill Downs this weekend, but also some upsetting Derby history

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Honest Pleasure, meet Bold Forbes. Bold Forbes, this is Honest Pleasure. It is odd that the two have not met before somewhere along the line. Fascinating that they now come together in the Kentucky Derby, the biggest, zaniest, roughest, best-attended, most widely watched and celebrated animal act this country has to offer. Its conditions have been constant for 80 years: 1� miles for 3-year-olds over a demanding racetrack. In 1973, when they were born, there were 27,292 thoroughbred foals. Last February 250 of them were nominated for the Derby. But by 5:40 this Saturday afternoon that number probably will be reduced to eight. Honest Pleasure and Bold Forbes have scared off the rest. Those two are a little scary in their own right. Their running styles are so similar, virtually so unalterable at this stage of their lives, that one—and maybe both—may have to be picked up with a sponge by the time the thing is over.

Since early last September Honest Pleasure has won nine straight races, seven of them major stakes. He has beaten 71 opponents and bankrolled $50,461 for each minute of competition. In his two most recent races he paid mutuel prices of $2.10 and $2.20 for winning the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and last Thursday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Both of those prices were the minimums dictated by state laws, but the actual odds on Honest Pleasure were 1 to 20 and 1 to 18. The American Racing Manual shows that at comparable stages of their careers, Man o' War, Citation, Count Fleet, Native Dancer, Tom Fool and Secretariat were never bet down to odds so low.

Until three weeks ago most racing people had "put a ring" around Honest Pleasure's name, virtually conceding the Derby to him. On April 17, however, Bold Forbes ran off with the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, thrusting his head into the Derby picture and adding a great deal of zest to what was shaping up as little more than a walkover. And the 102nd Derby is like none of recent vintage, because the top two contenders, at least on their past performances, come out of the starting gate in full flight, daring their opposition to come after them. In short races each has been in front by as many as 10 lengths at the top of the stretch, their jockeys seemingly doing little more than polishing rear-view mirrors. Yet each horse presents a rating problem to his trainer and jockey.

Neither Honest Pleasure nor Bold Forbes has ever been out of the money. Honest Pleasure has won 10 of 12 starts, and his two losses were by a total of a length and a quarter. Bold Forbes has won 10 of 13 and has never run worse than third. In his last two races, the Bay Shore and the Wood, Bold Forbes won by a total of 12� lengths. LeRoy Jolley the trainer of Honest Pleasure as well as last year's Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure, gives certain indications that Honest Pleasure can be rated and does not have to run in front of his field. Laz Barrera, the trainer of Bold Forbes, suggests the same for his horse. Nevertheless, such talk should probably be dismissed as little more than shedrow coffee housing until actual Derby riding instructions are given by the trainers to Braulio Baeza (Honest Pleasure) and Angel Cordero Jr. (Bold Forbes).

Depending upon how Derby Day bettors feel about Bold Forbes, a Kentucky bred, the odds on the Florida-bred Honest Pleasure should be no higher than 6 to 5. They might well go as low as 4 to 5, or even lower if the big crowd at Churchill Downs feels as strongly about him as the crowds did at the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass. He is likely to be the first odds-on Derby favorite since Native Dancer in 1953. That shrewdly named gray son of Polynesian and Geisha was beaten in one of racing's most momentous upsets. But then, very strange things have happened in Kentucky Derbies, particularly to favorites. Although 45 of 101 favorites have won, history cautions us to keep an eye peeled for the unexpected.

Back in 1880 only five horses went to the post. Kimball was made the 3-to-5 favorite, only to lose to Fonso, a 7-to-1 shot. "This Derby," the official chart says, "was run in dust many inches deep, and the dust kicked up by the leading horse [Fonso] practically obscured the nearest pursuers." There was a foul claim against the winner, but, as usual in Kentucky Derbies, it was disallowed. The next year the fabled "Gambling Dwyer Brothers" reportedly bet $50,000 on their own colt Hindoo in order to win $1,000. Hindoo was chased at one time or another by each of his five opponents, yet drew off to win by the comfortable margin of four lengths.

Proctor Knott was made the 1-to-2 favorite to win in 1889 and "became a wild horse at the barrier, broke away twice to gallop more than an eighth of a mile, almost unseated his rider during several spectacular lunges." Nevertheless, Proctor Knott had a five-length lead down the backstretch. The finish? He lost by a nose to Spokane. Many spectators thought the judges were looking at the finish cross-eyed, but Frank James, Jesse's brother, liked their decision immensely. Frank had walked up to a bookmaker before the race and asked the odds on Spokane. "Ten to one," said the book, "and the sky's the limit." James handed over a roll of bills and said, "There's $5,000. As far as I'm concerned that's the sky." James thus won $50,000, while Proctor Knott, who may have been the actual winner, earned $300 for placing.

The biggest bet ever recorded in a Derby was made in 1919 by J.K.L. Ross—$250,000 on Sir Barton, a horse that had never won in six starts and did not have a race as a 3-year-old until Derby Day. Sir Barton led every step of the way at odds of $2.60 to $1 and won by five lengths en route to becoming the first Triple Crown champion. Horse and owner came to unusual ends. In 1937 Sir Barton died at the U.S. Army Remount Service ranch in Douglas, Wyo. Ross was buried at sea off Montego Bay in 1951 after gambling away more than $10 million.

Native Dancer lost to Dark Star because a 45-to-1 shot, Money Broker, roughed him on the first turn. It was the only loss in The Dancer's 22-race career and Dark Star, who had won by a head, paying $51.80, never won another race. The shortest-priced favorites since 1940, Count Fleet and Citation ($2.80 each), both went on to win the Triple Crown. So did Whirlaway, the highest-priced winning favorite, in 1941.

Because this year's top two are both the speed and the class of the Derby, speculation about strategy is intense. Should Honest Pleasure allow Bold Forbes to steal off to a long lead, then stalk him and try to dispatch him through the 1,234� feet of the Churchill Downs stretch, one of the longest in the U.S.? The odds say yes, because it is 5 to 1 against any horse leading a Derby from start to finish. (The last horse to do so was Riva Ridge in 1972.)

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