November 30, 2009

Remembering … Pleasant Colony

The year was 1981 and it was the first season without one of the superstars of the late 70s gracing the American racing scene. There was no Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, or Spectacular Bid to marvel us, Genuine Risk was not quite herself, and John Henry would not become an icon until later in the year. Racing was searching for a star that they had grown accustomed to the past several Springs. A star is what we got in the form of a late developing colt and his slick talking trainer.

Pleasant Colony was a Virginia bred son of His Majesty, an excellent sire and a son of the great European runner and sire Ribot. Pleasant Colony was a home bred of Thomas Mellon Evan’s Buckland Farm, his dam was Sun Colony by Sunrise Flight, which furthered the late developing and distance loving blood that flowed through his veins. He grew to 17 hands tall, but he never filled out his imposing height and gave the appearance of a gangly and skinny colt. He was certainly not bred, nor did he have the looks for speed or precociousness. It was therefore no surprise when Pleasant Colony finished up the track in a maiden sprint at Belmont in his first lifetime race. The winner that day was a Verbatim youngster named Summing, remember that name.

Things changed quickly for the Buckland runner when stretched out to two turns. His maiden win at The Meadowlands was visually impressive as he circled the field and continued to pour it on through the lighted Meadowlands stretch. From that night, at one of my home tracks, I would follow the rest of his career with keen interest. Pleasant Colony went on to a solid, yet unspectacular, Fall of his two-year-old season. The highlight, being placed first in the Remsen after being bothered by first place finisher Akureyri. On a curious note it was the second of four consecutive races that Akureyri would finish in front of Pleasant Colony. Three times finishing first in a stakes with Pleasant Colony finishing close behind. Hopes were still high for the long-legged son of His Majesty when the Florida Derby rolled around. It featured a star-studded field of returning champion Lord Avie, speedy Five Star Flight, and his nemesis Akureyri. The race proved a huge disappointment as the Buckland runner never lifted his hooves and finished a listless fifth to Lord Avie and Akureyri. Changes would be made.

On April 18, armed with a new trainer, a new jockey, a return to a familiar racetrack, and a pair of strong one mile workouts, the real Pleasant Colony finally appeared. The occasion was the Wood Memorial, and the new trainer Johnny Campo was talking up his new horse. He was right. Pleasant Colony ran right by the highly regarded Cure the Blues and romped to an easy win with the classy Highland Blade getting up for 2nd. Dismissed at 13-1, Pleasant Colony went from afterthought to one of the Derby favorites with one fell swoop. It was on to Louisville and his brash trainer was ready to put on a show.

Johnny Campo told anyone that would listen before the Kentucky Derby that the winner was in his barn. Campo, about as much a New Yorker as a person could get, was a successful trainer well before Pleasant Colony came along. In 1973, Campo trained both the year's champion 2-year-old male, Protagonist, and filly, Talking Picture, for owner Maxwell Gluck. But it was Pleasant Colony who was Campo's best horse and would make the trainer known to millions. Campo was neither shy nor humble and he along with Pleasant Colony would rocket to superstardom status one spring month in 1981. 21 horses would run for the roses that day and Pleasant Colony was one of the favorites. People were listening and after his impressive score in the Wood, it was no surprise when the big bay rolled down the lane, opened up a clear lead, and had plenty left for the late charge of Woodchopper. Pleasant Colony was now a Derby winner and a bona fide star and so was Campo, who quipped, “I’m a good horse trainer pal, don’t ever forget it.” when questioned about his confidence by the polite announcer, Jim McKay. Campo and Pleasant Colony were on to Baltimore and Campo would issue a warning to the other horses set to run in the Preakness, telling the national audience that they should be pitied.

The Preakness was proof of what Campo had been telling the world. It was his third sparkling performance in a stretch of four weeks, as Pleasant Colony overpowered a strong field and rolled by the gutsy speed horse from New Mexico, Bold Ego, late to a one length win. For Campo, it was more opportunity to crow, for jockey Jorge Velasquez, it was sweet redemption after the heartbreak of Alydar’s Triple Crown run of three years earlier. Pleasant Colony appeared primed to become the fourth Crown champion in the past nine years.

Alas the Triple Crown was not to be as the big horse, tired from the grueling string of races, hung in the Belmont stretch and could never catch the rail skimming run of Summing. To his credit, Pleasant Colony ran a big race, as he went wide on the first turn and dropped back to last early despite the dawdling pace. He made a big move to get into contention on the far turn and kept trying in the stretch, but he no longer had his best to give. Highland Blade rallied well to finish 2nd with the Spring’s hero a gallant 3rd beaten less than 2 lengths for immortality. He returned from the track that day an exhausted horse and would get a lengthy rest and only ran three more times in his career. Pleasant Colony's other win, this marvelous year, came in the Woodward Stakes where he defeated a top notch handicap field. He had narrowly missed winning the sloppy Travers in his first race back after the grueling Triple Crown. He was retired in the Fall after a fourth-place effort in the Marlboro Cup. His final record read six wins from 14 starts and earnings of just under one million dollars in his two seasons of racing, but it was that amazing Spring, with Johnny Campo as his mouthpiece, that Pleasant Colony set the racing world on fire.

In his second life, Pleasant Colony, was also a star. He entered stud at the Buckland division near Lexington, Kentucky and became a top sire with many sons and daughters who carried on his class and distance ability. Pleasant Colony sired 73 stakes winners, including American champions Pleasant Tap and Pleasant Stage, Belmont Stakes winner Colonial Affair, handicap star Behrens, and multiple European champion St. Jovite. Pleasant Colony was pensioned from breeding in 2000 and was eventually sent back to his roots in Virginia, where he passed away from natural causes on New Year’s Eve of 2002 and was buried at Buckland Farm. I remember you Pleasant Colony.


Ian Lozada said...

Thanks a bunch for this one, Brian. Who was the original trainer?

Brian Zipse said...

Thanks Ian. His original trainer was P. O'Donnell Lee.

ja.raymond said...

PC came along a yr after I started taking notice of who's who in racing and I remember how Campo was bragging it up before and after the Derby; I also remember thinking "He'd better shut up, or it's gonna come back to bite him in the butt". But after the Preakness, I thought, "Well, maybe he knows something the rest of us dont. Go PC!!"
But in the Belmont, it happened; and I remember being really disappointed for PC and embarrassed for Campo (I still remember the expression on his face; the tone in his voice in the brief interview afterward). As far back as then, I wanted to see a Triple Crown winner..and all these yrs later, I'm still waiting...:/
Nice write, Brian, thanx for the trip down memory lane. I'm glad I "ran into" you on FB :)

LDP said...

It's a shame such a brilliant horse only got to shine so briefly. That seems to be the norm these days but still. I had heard of PC, but not very in depth. Thank you for allowing me to see a little deeper into PC's career.

The_Knight_Sky said...

A very nice tribute.

A lot of nice horses broke their maidens at The Meadowlands in in the 80's. Groovy was another one.

And that Johnny Campo.
Racing needs more characters like that today, I do believe.

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you to all...and TKS, I could not agree with you more. In this world of quick snippets, Campo would have been a sound byte machine and great for racing. RIP Johnny.