Three days before the Kentucky Derby, LeRoy Jolley, the trainer of favorite Honest Pleasure, stood near his horse's stall at Churchill Downs and made a rather remarkable statement, considering. "The race I'm looking forward to," he said, "is the one at Belmont Park on May 22." Jolley was denigrating neither the Derby nor Honest Pleasure nor any of his opponents. But he was excited about the expected meeting between his Optimistic Gal and Dearly Precious, the champion 2-year-old filly of 1975, in the Acorn Stakes, the first leg of the Triple Crown for fillies. Optimistic Gal had met Dearly Precious twice and lost both times, the only defeats Jolley's filly had suffered in 12 lifetime starts. But the two had not met as 3-year-olds, and campaigning this year, Optimistic Gal had won seven races in a row. Dearly Precious' wins over Optimistic Gal had occurred in July and August of last season at short distances and at a time when few people were paying much attention to either filly. Form, however, seemed to dictate that when the two got together in the Acorn at a distance of one mile, Optimistic Gal would prevail.
But last Saturday, with a lot of people paying attention, the analysis proved wrong. The outcome was the same. Dearly Precious beat Optimistic Gal by 2¼ lengths, coming through the stretch in her distinctive fashion, her legs swinging out like a swimmer's arms reaching for water ahead and her demeanor that of a woman who knows she looks good but wants someone to tell her so.
Dearly Precious' victory was unavoidably interwoven with a strange thing that happened—or didn't happen—at Belmont Park that day. Braulio Baeza, the second leading money-winner of all time ($35 million in purses) and Optimistic Gal's regular jockey, failed to arrive for work. During a remarkable 15-year riding career, the Panamanian had forged a reputation for reliability and decorum, silence and politeness. He was so proper and prompt that people around racetracks swore they could set their watches by him. But Baeza neither showed up for the Acorn nor sent excuses: as strange an occurrence as Pete Rose missing the seventh game of a World Series.
At 2:15 p.m. on Acorn day, Jack O'Hara, the clerk of scales at Belmont, looked at the log on his desk and noted that Baeza, booked to ride in the sixth race as well as the Acorn, hadn't been heard from. O'Hara called the stewards and at 2:30 the announcement was made to the public.
Baeza, 36, has been bothered in recent years by a severe weight problem. His inability to meet assigned weights has cost him perhaps as many as 100 winners a season. Baeza's excellent touch with a horse and his ability to judge the pace make him highly desirable to trainers. But when a rider cannot make assigned weights, trainers must look elsewhere. Of the 31 experienced riders listed in the condition book at Belmont Park, Baeza is the high weight at 117 compared with the average of 110. Recently, however, he has not been able to meet even that weight, and no amount of "flipping" (sticking one's fingers down one's throat to induce vomiting) or time spent in the "sweat box" seemed to help. He had been using diet pills for some time but to no avail. Then, three weeks ago, he was injured in a bad spill at Belmont and had ridden irregularly since. Baeza's future is now clouded. He must appear before the stewards and explain his nonappearance, and the stewards may either fine or suspend him. And beyond that, there is a question of how many trainers will now name him on a horse.
Jolley, of course, had to face the immediate problem of finding a replacement for Baeza. Under normal conditions it would have been easy. But this was Saturday and the top riders were scattered about the land competing in other stakes. Jolley selected 22-year-old Pat Day to ride Optimistic Gal, and while Day is a decent enough young rider he was totally unfamiliar with the filly.
When the gate opened in the Acorn, Optimistic Gal stumbled and settled into fourth position in the field of eight. Under Jockey Jorge Velasquez, Dearly Precious moved in front, setting a nice slow pace. The pace, in fact, was so woefully slow (a :47 half mile) that when Dearly Precious curved into the stretch and Optimistic Gal had her chance to make up ground she was unable to do so. Dearly Precious still had more than enough left.
Dearly Precious' owner is Dick Bailey, a man who admits he has spent more than $1½ million buying horses without a great deal of success. But two years ago he went to the Yearling Sales at Saratoga. "I was not going to buy anything," he was saying Saturday evening. "I had convinced myself of that. I walked around to look at some horses and saw one by Dr. Fager from Imsodear. She was standing in the rear of the sales pavilion, and something inside me told me to buy her. I don't know what it was, but I just wanted to own her. I made one bid on her at $22,000 and got her. I've never been this lucky."
Bailey is a 65-year-old semiretired television man who first put thoroughbred racing and the pro golf tour on the screen on a regular basis. He owned Sports Network Inc., an independent operation that bought sporting events and sold them to stations throughout the country.
Eight years ago Bailey sold SNI to Howard Hughes for an estimated $16 million. "When I sold to Hughes I was told that everyone would ask if I ever met him," Bailey says. "I was also told, 'Those who say they see him don't, and those who do see him don't say.' But no, I never met Howard Hughes. I was in the same hotel he was staying at but I didn't get to see him."
Dearly Precious has been strikingly visible, even in defeat. Two weeks before the Acorn, she ran in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico. She was coming off a loss in the Comely at Belmont, but was expected to smother the field. In what was probably the finest filly race in several years, Dearly Precious and What A Summer drove to the wire together. The stewards took a full eight minutes to read the photo finish, finally declaring What A Summer the winner by a nose. But Dearly Precious had given her rival 10 pounds. "I felt it was one of her best races even though she lost," said Trainer Steve DiMauro. "She proved to me that she could run a distance [1[1/16] miles] and that she might have needed the race. I love Dearly Precious. She's unlike any horse I've ever seen. When she runs she seems to be happy. You can almost see her smiling."
Should Dearly Precious win the Mother Goose on June 4, she would then have to win the June 26 Coaching Club American Oaks (both races are also at Belmont Park) to complete the filly Triple Crown. Another filly did so last year. To many her name is dear and precious: Ruffian.
BAEZA'S CAREER IS NOW IN JEOPARDY