It’s not unusual for pairs of human or equine athletes to be synonymous with each other.
Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier.
Bjorn Borg had John McEnroe.
Billie Jean King had Bobby Riggs.
Foolish Pleasure falls into the same category, only in a much different manner.
Anytime his name is mentioned, it’s nearly impossible to avoid recalling the brilliant filly Ruffian, who suffered a leg injury that proved fatal in their July 6, 1975, match race.
It’s understandable that few remember the sight of Foolish Pleasure crossing the finish line that day, yet that one afternoon has unfairly obscured a career which might have been celebrated with more emotion under different circumstances.
If he were born 10 years earlier or later, Foolish Pleasure’s accomplishments would have stood out with much more gusto. Instead, in a career that spanned 1974-76, he raced during one of the sport’s greatest decades, sharing a stage with Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Forego, and, yes, Ruffian.
There were even five horses who nearly swept the Triple Crown during the 1970s, a roster that includes Canonero II, Riva Ridge, Little Current, Bold Forbes, and Spectacular Bid in the two-out-of-three-is-pretty-darn-good club.
Like most of them, Foolish Pleasure was a Kentucky Derby winner. He captured the 1975 run for the roses as a 9-5 favorite, one of his 16 victories in a 26-race career that earned him enshrinement in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1995, a year after his death.
Owned by John L. Greer, Foolish Pleasure was trained by Leroy Jolley, a 1987 Hall of Fame inductee who brought out the very best in the bay colt..
A son of What a Pleasure out of the Tom Fool mare Fool-Me-Not, Foolish Pleasure flashed exceptional talent from day one. He won his debut at Hialeah on April 4, 1974, and then posted a 10-length victory in the Dover Stakes at Delaware Park. Next was a win in the Grade 3 Tremont that led to decisive victories in the Sapling, Hopeful, Cowdin, and Champagne which capped a perfect 7-for-7 season.
Rewarded with an Eclipse Award as the year’s undisputed champion 2-year-old champ, Foolish Pleasure headed into 1975 as an overwhelming favorite to add the Kentucky Derby to his already impressive credentials. He had such a sterling reputation that when he made his 3-year-old debut on Feb. 12, 1975 in a Hialeah allowance race, it was contested with no betting.
A 4 ¼-length win in the allowance race was followed by a 1 ¾-length score in the Flamingo at Hialeah as an overwhelming 2-5 favorite and conjecture started to grow that Secretariat might soon have company in the Triple Crown champion fraternity. But then, in a stunning upset, Foolish Pleasure finished third in the Florida Derby, winding up 3 ¼ lengths behind Prince Thou Art.
Overcoming post 15 and winning by a head in Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial brought many of Foolish Pleasure’s fans back to the bandwagon, and those that hopped aboard were rewarded. Doing what was expected from him at the start of the year, he rallied from eighth to win the Kentucky Derby by 1 ¾ lengths over Avatar as the betting favorite.
"Until an athlete does something, you don't know if he can do it,” Jolley said in Sports Illustrated’s report on the Derby. “But now it seems that whatever the others can do, Foolish Pleasure can do it just a little bit better."
Two weeks later, his bid for the Triple Crown came to a disappointing end when he encountered traffic problems and fell a length shy of catching Master Derby in the Preakness.
He repeated that runner-up finish with another second-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, losing by a neck to Avatar. Still that effort and his consistency in the Triple Crown garnered him acclaim at that point in the year as the year’s best 3-year-old … male.
While Foolish Pleasure was competing in the Triple Crown, Ruffian was busy dominating the 3-year-old filly division with a freakish amount of speed. A win in the Grade 1, mile and a half Coaching Club American Oaks on June 21 left her unbeaten in 10 starts. She had led at every call in those 10 victories and was now in the market for new competition.
Two years removed from Riggs’ “Battle of the Sexes” in tennis with King and Margaret Court, racing had the perfect mix of ingredients for its own clash between outstanding male and female competitors. The New York Racing Association put up $350,000 for a mile and a quarter race that would pit Ruffian against the winners of the three legs of the Triple Crown races: Foolish Pleasure, Master Derby, and Avatar. When Avatar backed out, NYRA paid the connections of Master Derby to keep their horse in his stall so that there could be a head-to-head duel between the Kentucky Derby winner and the undefeated filly.
Dubbed “The Great Match,” the event captured the fascination of the nation and attracted a crowd of 50,764 to Belmont Park in addition to millions more in a Sunday afternoon network television audience.
Ruffian was sent off a 2-5 favorite, mostly because of her superior early speed, and when the two rivals broke from the start gate it was indeed Ruffian who held a narrow edge over Foolish Pleasure after an opening quarter in a quick 22 1/5. As they continued along Belmont’s seemingly endless backstretch Ruffian remained in front and had increased her lead slightly when tragedy struck. About three furlongs into the race, Ruffian took a bad step and began to bobble. As Foolish Pleasure sprinted clear from the injured filly, jockey Jacinto Vasquez jumped off his severely injured mount.
But it was too late. Ruffian had shattered the sesamoid bones in her right foreleg. Surgeons tried to save her, but their work was undone when she awoke from anesthesia and lashed out with her leg, destroying the cast around it. With any hope that she could be saved removed, Ruffian was humanely euthanized.
One of the sport’s most highly anticipated days would be forever draped with heartbreak and sorrow – and Foolish Pleasure was relegated to a secondary role in a race that may have defined him as an even greater champion.
“I saw what happened," Jolley told Sports Illustrated, "and I watched my horse go the rest of the way. I saw him cross the finish line. I am always going to believe my horse could have beaten her anyway, because he was just where I wanted him to be when it happened. It's the thing you fear every time you saddle a horse. You always think about it and you hope he comes back in one piece. With horses that run as hard as these two, the risk you run is greater. They throw everything they have into it, and if it kills them, it kills them."
After “The Great Match,” Foolish Pleasure tackled older horses with mixed results. He lost by a head to eventual 3-year-old champion Wajima in the Grade 1 Governor Stakes but then was fifth behind Wajima and Forego in the Marlboro Cup, finishing 10 lengths behind in the weakest effort of his career.
A nose loss in an allowance race ended a bittersweet 3-year-old season.
He ran eight times at 4 with mixed results, winning the Donn Handicap and Suburban – the latter by a nose over Forego when he carried 125 pounds and Forego toted 134. He also finished no better than third in a pair of Hollywood Park graded stakes and a turf stakes at Gulfstream.
The end came in the Golden Invitational at Arlington Park, when he won by 3 ½ lengths and pushed his career earnings to $1,216,705.
He would leave the racetrack, but would not be forgotten – especially when Ruffian is mentioned.
- On the closing weekend of the 1974 Saratoga meet, Ruffian won the Spinaway on Friday, Aug. 24 and Foolish Pleasure took a division of the Hopeful on Saturday, Aug. 25.
- In “The Great Match,” while running by himself, Foolish Pleasure covered the first six furlongs in 1:08 3/5, a fifth of a second off the track record.
- Jolley also trained Honest Pleasure, a son of What a Pleasure who won the 1976 Travers, Blue Grass, Florida Derby, and Flamingo and was the champion 2-year-old male of 1975. Honest Pleasure was owned by Bertram R Firestone.
- In his 26 starts, Foolish Pleasure was never sent off at odds longer than his $3.70-1 in the 1976 Brooklyn Handicap, when he was third behind Forego.