SPORTS: The Best Horse in the World
The horse that almost couldn’t race, Pleasantly Perfect, is about to wine his second Breeders’ Cup Classic, making owner Gerald Ford an even richer man.
|FAST TRACK: At the Dubai World Cup in March, Pleasantly Perfect edged past Medaglio d’Oro in the $6 million race.
THE FRAMED PICTURES BEHIND Gerald Ford’s desk are no different than those on or around the desks of other bankers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs who office at the Crescent. Pictures of huge sailboats in brilliant blue waters. Happy broods at summer homes. Foursomes on the tee boxes of exclusive golf courses.
But there, among the photographic evidence of success, is a picture of a slight Panamanian atop a horse. He’s wearing blue and yellow silks, and his fist is raised with a whip in hand, celebrating yet another win. The jockey is Alex Solis. The owner is Gerald Ford. The horse is Pleasantly Perfect, the best horse in the world.
Statistics and earnings aside, Pleasantly Perfect is an impressive specimen, which trainer Richard Mandella noticed before statistics and earnings even entered the picture, back in 1999 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Surprisingly, the big, brown colt had excellent conformation; horses with his lineage tend to be gangly. Not Pleasantly Perfect. He looked powerful, pretty, perfect.
Mandella spent $725,000 of owner Gerald Ford’s money to buy the yearling, but not based on looks alone. The colt had the pedigree of a champion. Pleasantly Perfect’s dad, Pleasant Colony, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in 1981, was a reliable source of stamina and class. His maternal grandfather was the legendary Affirmed. When Mandella picked up Pleasantly Perfect, he thought he had the next Triple Crown winner.
But Pleasantly Perfect didn’t race as a 2-year-old. He ran only one race as a 3-year-old—and fell behind by 30 lengths. The one-time Triple Crown hopeful turned out to be a colt that couldn’t race. But it didn’t take long for Mandella to find out why. Pleasantly Perfect was sick. He had a virus that settled around his heart sac. When he ran, his heart rate would actually go down. "If we’d exercised him more, we might have stopped [his heart]," Mandella says.
Rest was the best treatment for the horse, and worry was the only thing his trainer and owner could do. Mandella says he lost most of the hair on his head. Ford figured he lost nearly three-quarters of a million dollars on a horse that wouldn’t even make it as a polo pony. They waited.
Their patience paid off. On October 30, at Lone Star Park, Pleasantly Perfect returns to the $4 million Breeders’ Cup Classic as the defending champion of America’s richest race. Earlier this year, in March, he won the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the world. That beautiful brown horse turned out to be as good as he looked. Actually, better.
GERALD FORD, WHO MADE MILLIONS—and then billions—as a banker, grew up in Pampa, Texas, "the Pulse of the Panhandle," so he knew a thing or two about horses. He started riding when he was 6, had his own horse when he was 7, and continues to ride today, either at his ranch in New Mexico or his farm in Kentucky. "Any kid from a small town who makes 30 cents, he turns around and goes to buy a ranch," he says.
Ford has made considerably more than 30 cents (Forbes
estimates his wealth at $1.5 billion), and 11 years ago he bought the Diamond A Ranch just outside of Ruidoso, New Mexico. Gil Moutray, a director of one of the banking companies Ford owned there, was also chairman of New Mexico’s racing commission. Moutray introduced Ford to the world of thoroughbred racing at nearby Ruidoso Downs and took him to the 1993 Breeders’ Cup in Louisville and the Kentucky Derby the year after that. In between, Ford decided to become a racehorse owner.
After interviewing several trainers, he found Mandella, a trainer as nice as he is successful. Together, they built up the Diamond A Racing Corporation into one of the sport’s powerhouses, but it took time. "I don’t do too much on a whim," Ford says. "I methodically approached it. I started buying one horse, and then two horses, and then five, six, seven. I built it up to where we probably have more than 100 thoroughbreds in terms of racing and breeding." In June 2000, he bought Brookside Farms’ 815 acres near Versailles, Kentucky, for a little more than $11 million, renamed it Diamond A Farms, and hired Ted Carr to manage it and run the breeding operation there.
Diamond A had winners in Stop the Traffic and Dixie Union, but Pleasantly Perfect has been the star. Thus far, the 6-year-old has earned more than $7 million. Another Breeders’ Cup victory would add $2 million plus.
Since its inception in 1984, the Breeders’ Cup has been thoroughbred racing’s World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, and more, all on the same day. The venue for the Breeders’ Cup changes every year, but the race schedule stays the same. Eight races—on dirt and turf, sprints and routes, for old and young—attract the best horses in the world to compete for a total of $14 million. The biggest prize goes to the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a mile and a quarter test of horses 3 years and older.
The crowd of 51,648 at last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita didn’t think much of Pleasantly Perfect’s chances. Mandella’s horse went off at 14-1. Medaglio d’Oro was the favorite at 5-2, and out of the gate, he showed why. Medaglio d’Oro and 6-1 choice Congaree were neck and neck for most of the race. As the field came out of the last turn and headed for home, Congaree was ahead on the outside, with Medaglio, ridden by Jerry Bailey, in second on the rail. Hold That Tiger was well-positioned, tucked behind the leaders in third. Alex Solis had Pleasantly Perfect on the outside, having guided him from fifth to fourth then third at the one-eighth pole. With 100 yards to go, at Solis’ urging, Pleasantly Perfect found another gear. He passed under the wire, a winner by a length and a half, still full of run.
For owner Ford, it was his first ever Breeders’ Cup win. For Solis, it was vindication; he had been in 40 Breeders’ Cup mounts with only one win. For trainer Mandella, it was his fourth win of the day, a Breeders’ Cup record that should hold up for years, if not decades. For Pleasantly Perfect, it was business as usual.
Five months later, Medaglio d’Oro and Pleasantly Perfect were flown to the other side of the world to do it all again. At the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the prize was more, the margin less, but the result the same: Pleasantly Perfect first, Medaglio second.
After the win, Ford and Mandella could have let Pleasantly Perfect stand at Diamond A in Kentucky to breed, and no one would have blamed them. Once a horse is proven, breeding is more valuable than winning. But Ford and Mandella have decided to try for a Breeders’ Cup Classic repeat, a feat only one other horse has ever accomplished.
The return to the winner’s circle has not been easy.
On July 23, in the otherwise ho-hum third race at Del Mar, Solis rode a horse called Golden KK. As the horses turned into the stretch, Vegas Folly veered suddenly, and Golden KK clipped his heels, sending Solis hard to the track. Some who saw the accident are surprised stewards did not suspend Javier Santiago, who rode Vegas Folly and escaped injury. Golden KK was fine, too. Solis suffered a fractured vertebra and three ribs and a punctured lung. He underwent a four-hour surgery to have a rod inserted in his back. He’s expected to be out of racing until early next year.
With his jockey injured, Mandella tapped Jerry Bailey, who rode the second-place Medaglio d’Oro last year, to ride Pleasantly Perfect in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on August 22 and in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this month. But first, there was the Grade II San Diego Handicap on August 1, Pleasantly Perfect’s first race since Dubai. Bailey was previously committed to ride a different horse, so Mike Smith rode Pleasantly Perfect. And when the horse finished second by less than a length to an undefeated Choctaw Nation, Smith took the blame. Mandella, on the other hand, continues to blame himself. He says he put too much speed into Pleasantly Perfect in the workouts leading up to the race and that he was too fresh and rank. Neither mentioned the fact that Pleasantly Perfect had to carry 10 pounds more than Choctaw Nation in the 1 1/16-mile race, a weight penalty assigned to handicap the best horses.
Despite the loss, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association polls still had Pleasantly Perfect as the best horse in the country. On August 22, he looked the part. Pleasantly Perfect won the Pacific Classic at Del Mar convincingly in his come-from-behind style. Bailey gave all of the credit to the horse. Ford had flown Bailey in from Saratoga, New York, just for the race. The $600,000 winner’s purse of the Pacific Classic pushed Pleasantly Perfect’s earnings to more than $7.3 million, good enough for fifth on the all-time earnings list. Cigar still sits atop the list with $9,999,815. A win on October 30 at Lone Star Park won’t lift Pleasantly Perfect past the $10 million legend, but it would certainly lock up Horse of the Year honors. And a Hall of Fame berth awaits, not to mention the millions in stud fees, a healthy ROI on the $725,000 yearling.
But for Ford, Pleasantly Perfect is more than an investment. He has the pictures to prove it.
Photo Courtesy of Dubai World Cup