Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Florida Derby Winners
It had been a glorious five-year run. A parade of stellar champions named Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, and Genuine Risk had roamed racing's landscape.
But two months before the 1981 Kentucky Derby, savvy railbirds had barely taken notice of Pleasant Colony. Born at Thomas Mellon Evans’ Buckland Farm in Warrenton, Va., he was a son of His Majesty, an excellent sire and a son of the great European runner and sire Ribot. His dam was Sun Colony, by Sunrise Flight, resulting in a distance-loving pedigree.
A lanky, dark bay colt who grew to stand nearly 17 hands, he captured two of his five juvenile starts, including the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes via disqualification in New York. At age 3, Pleasant Colony was runner-up in the Fountain of Youth, but finished fifth, beaten by 12 1/2 lengths in the 1981 Florida Derby. Dismissing his young trainer O'Donnell Lee, Evans shipped the colt to Belmont Park and trainer John Campo. A sharp-tongued New Yorker, five-foot tall Campo tipped the scales at 250 pounds.
“Doesn't matter, the horse is running, not me,” cracked Campo.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Evans was one of Wall Street’s most feared corporate raiders. After he shut down several companies in New Jersey, state Democratic Congressman Frank Thompson Jr. dubbed him “the corporate embodiment of Jaws, the great white shark.” More often, though, Evans was lauded as a financial genius.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he began his financial career at the bottom — despite his gilded middle name. His grandmother’s first cousin was Andrew Mellon, the world-famous banker. After graduating from Yale University in 1931, Evans landed a $100-a-month clerk’s job at Gulf Oil, then owned by the Mellon family.
In 1956, Evans bought a 495-acre Gainesville, Va., ranch that raised Black Angus cattle. He switched it over to Thoroughbreds and named it Buckland Farm in 1964. A trio of champions would be raised there — including Pleasant Colony — their jockeys wearing the Buckland Farm silks of dark blue with a white triangle and white sleeves.
The son of an Italian sewing machine operator, Campo grew up near Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. In 1959, at age 16, he was hired by Aqueduct trainer Eddie Neloy, a future Racing Hall of Famer. Campo was promoted to assistant trainer after four years but with a catch. Neloy insisted on smoothing Campo’s rough edges with a 14-week self improvement course.
“It was a pretty nice course,” Campo said in a 1981 interview with People magazine. “I think it would help a fellow who ain’t so high-strung.”
Campo also worked at the barns of James E. “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and Lucien Laurin before going solo in 1968. His first top-flight horse was Jim French, who won the 1971 Santa Anita Derby and was second in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
In early 1981, Pleasant Colony, stabled in Campo’s barn at Belmont, didn't look much like a runner. He dozed in his stall. When he hit the track for the post parade, his ears dropped, his ribs stuck out and he was known for his unruly behavior by the time he was loaded into the starting gate.
Once Campo got his hands on Pleasant Colony, he had a month to prepare for the Wood Memorial Stakes. Typically slow into his best stride during races, Pleasant Colony’s late run and stamina made him a tough and classy competitor.
“When the horse came in, he looked underdeveloped — all leg and no girth,” Pleasant Colony’s veterinarian at the time, Janice Runkle, told People. “John’s put hard training into him, and now he’s got muscle. Some horses wouldn’t have been able to take that change in training, but he was ready.”
Armed with a new trainer and new jockey Jorge Velasquez, the rangy colt stepped out of the shadows in the 57th running of the Wood Memorial when Pleasant Colony blew by favored Cure the Blues on the final turn and went on to a three-length victory.
“Just watch him in the Triple Crown,” Campo told the New York Times. “I’m a good trainer, and I told Jorge this morning that if this horse don’t win by five, he ain’t gonna win. I'm no jockey, but you gotta give this horse a chance. He’s a big strapping horse, and he’s gotta get himself together before he gets going.”
In Louisville, Campo, being Campo, told anyone who would listen his horse would win. As for Pleasant Colony, the colt was probably wondering about all the fuss. Twenty-one horses broke from the gate in the run for the roses on May 2 before the second-largest Derby crowd at the time of 139,195.
Pleasant Colony drifted toward the back of the pack before he rapidly worked his way into contention, weaving through the field on the final turn. Pleasant Colony took charge in early stretch and withstood a powerful finish by Woodchopper to prevail by three-quarters of a length.
The winner’s time of 2:02 for 1 ¼ miles was two and three-fifths seconds off the Churchill Downs track record set by Secretariat, even though the first two quarters were raced in record Derby clockings of :21 4/5 and :45 1/5. The early pace sapped the stamina out of the other favorites — Top Avenger, Proud Appeal, and Bold Ego.
“I told you so! I told everybody!” yelled Campo. When questioned about his confidence with his horse by the amiable ABC announcer Jim McKay, Campo barked, “I’m a good horse trainer pal, don’t ever forget it.”
The 106th Preakness was Pleasant Colony’s third sparkling performance in a stretch of four weeks. Evans’ colt circled much of the field as he rolled into the stretch to tangle with Bold Ego. The duo dueled down the length of the stretch before Pleasant Colony’s final burst of speed in the last few strides secured a one-length victory. For Velasquez, it was sweet redemption after the heartbreak of Alydar’s Triple Crown run of three-straight runner-up finishes three years earlier.
“I thought that we would go swoosh, right by Bold Ego,” Velasquez told Sports Illustrated after earning 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.”
So fast was the stretch drive that Pleasant Colony was able to tie the record for the fastest final three-sixteenths of a mile in the Preakness with his 18 1/5-second clocking, equaling Little Current (1974), Affirmed (1978), and Codex (1980).
For Buckland Farm owner Evans, the Preakness victory was worth $200,800. His second win in the Triple Crown boosted Pleasant Colony’s career earnings to $720,147 and his season earnings to $632,179. Pleasant Colony also gave his owner, trainer, and jockey their first Preakness victories.
Campo was emboldened by what he felt was a flawless performance by Pleasant Colony in the Preakness.
“He goes just as fast as he has to run,” Campo told the New York Times. “And he does it for fun.”
“He is a gen-yoo-ine racehorse,” Campo continued. “He’ll win the Belmont.”
On a hot and humid June afternoon at Belmont Park, a crowd of 61,106 was looking for Pleasant Colony to deliver the fourth Triple Crown sweep in nine years. Stamped as the 4-5 betting favorite, it was not Pleasant Colony’s day. Spooked on his way from the stable area to the saddling paddock and washed out in sweat, Pleasant Colony refused to load into the starting gate and delayed the race until the assistant starters finally coaxed him in.
Breaking from the outside post, Pleasant Colony was taken back to last early in the 11-horse field. Turning into the stretch, Velásquez urged Pleasant Colony to begin his run but the colt was unable to uncork his patented closing kick. Still, Pleasant Colony hung in there and finished a game third, beaten by less than two lengths by Summing.
“You can’t be sorry, that’s the name of the game,” Campo said. “You can’t win ’em all. My horse was trying to run but he wasn’t gaining any ground and he wasn’t losing any ground. He’s still a good horse. He’s not a great horse.
“He had a hard race in the Preakness,” Campo reflected years later in a story in the Los Angeles Times. “He came out of the race fine, but he was a tired horse, and you can’t win the Belmont with a tired horse. To get him geared up, I worked him a mile one day, and I knew then that it was too much for him. But you had to run, and hope you might get lucky.”
After the Belmont, the colt got a lengthy rest. He raced only three more times in his career. Angel Cordero replaced Velasquez as Pleasant Colony’s rider and guided him to a runner-up finish by a head in the Travers Stakes and a 1 ¾-length victory in the Woodward Stakes, in which he defeated a top-notch handicap field.
After a fourth-place finish in the Marlboro Cup Handicap, Pleasant Colony retired with a lifetime record of six wins, three seconds, and one third from 14 starts and $965,383 in earnings. He was named champion 3-year-old male in 1981, but lost out to John Henry for Horse of the Year.
At stud at the Buckland division in Kentucky, Pleasant Colony passed along his class and stamina, siring 77 stakes winners, including champion older male 1992 Pleasant Tap; Pleasantly Perfect, winner of the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Classic and 2004 Dubai World Cup; 1991 champion 2-year-old filly Pleasant Stage; 1993 Belmont Stakes winner Colonial Affair; 1993 Big ’Cap winner Sir Beaufort; and 1992 European Horse of the Year St. Jovite. Altogether his offspring earned more than $66 million. Pleasant Colony also is the broodmare sire of Tonalist, the 2014 Belmont Stakes winner.
On New Year’s Eve 2002, Pleasant Colony died of natural causes at age 24 in his paddock at the Blue Ridge farm near Upperville, Va. He was buried at David Blake's Buckland Farm just a short distance from the barn where he was born.