Of the 80 thoroughbreds who ran in the Breeders' Cup races at Gulfstream Park in 1989, only one is expected to appear in this year's seven-race, $10 million installment of that event when it is held at the same track on Oct. 31. But that horse, Pleasant Tap, who finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile three years ago. won't be just some creaky has-been hobbling back for a last hurrah.
By virtue of his sizzling 4½-length victory in last Saturday's $850,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, he should be the favorite in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the world's richest race. Now a seasoned 5-year-old, which is at least a year past retirement age for most top horses, Pleasant Tap and his 82-year-old owner, Thomas Mellon Evans, ought to be popular with Miami-area senior citizens who don't mind investing a little of their pension on the ponies.
Pleasant Tap, in fact, stands to become the first horse to run on four consecutive Breeders' Cup cards and the first to compete in four different Cup races. After his sixth-place finish in the Juvenile, he was eighth in the '90 Turf race and second in last year's Sprint. "He keeps getting better and better," said Pleasant Tap's trainer, Chris Speckert. "He can win at seven furlongs, mile and an eighth, mile and a quarter. He's just a damn honest horse, and I thank the Lord he's still around."
It was a grand day for oldsters all around. Kelso Handicap winner Roman Envoy is owned by 95-year-old Fred Hooper, whose Hoop Jr. won the 1945 Kentucky Derby. And the Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds went to Sea Hero, owned by 85-year-old Paul Mellon, whose Rokeby Stable is a pillar of the New York racing establishment.
In the Gold Cup, Pleasant Tap took on perhaps the toughest field assembled in the U.S. this year and destroyed it, covering 1¼ miles—the same distance as the Classic—in a stakes-record 1:58[4/5].
The Gold Cup was the climax of a successful experiment by the New York Racing Association, which wanted to restore the luster lost by its fall stakes program since the advent of the Breeders' Cup, in 1984. This year the NYRA consolidated its major fall stakes into two Super Saturdays of racing that served as Cup previews. The first, on Sept. 19, was a four-race, $1.1 million stakes card anchored by the Woodward Stakes. The second, on Saturday, had seven stakes worth a total of $2.5 million and was televised by NBC.
Saturday's crowd of 32,210—a vast improvement over the 16,216 the Gold Cup attracted last year—produced the third-largest single-day handle ($5,501,653) for a fall meeting at Belmont.
But until the Gold Cup, the big winner in the NYRA's experiment was jockey Jerry Bailey, who, after riding Sultry Song to a Woodward win on Super Saturday I, returned to win three of the first five stakes on Super Saturday II: the First Flight Handicap for fillies and mares, on Shared Interest; the Frizette Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, on Educated Risk; and the Champagne.
Pleasant Tap also was having a pretty fair year entering the Gold Cup: three wins and four seconds, with earnings of $812,414, in eight starts. But he was without regular jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, who opted to ride Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy in the Gold Cup, and Speckert quickly signed up Gary Stevens. The Belmont crowd made Pleasant Tap the 3-1 third choice, behind 5-2 cofavorites Sultry Song and A.P. Indy.
When the seven-horse field broke from the starting gate, A.P. Indy was banged so severely by Missionary Ridge that he almost fell and immediately dropped to last, trailing even Strike the Gold, a notorious lagger. Pleasant Tap stalked early pace-setter Devil His Due, then moved in tandem with Strike the Gold as the field entered the far turn. But when they straightened out, Pleasant Tap seized the lead and drew away.
Regardless of what happens in the Classic, in which Pleasant Tap's primary competition could come from European star St. Jovite (both horses are sons of Pleasant Colony), Speckert has apparently convinced Evans to race Pleasant Tap as a 6-year-old next year. Asked how long Pleasant Tap might keep going, Speckert laughed outside Belmont's Barn 8 on Saturday night and cast an affectionate gaze at his gutty campaigner. "If he gets old enough," Speckert said, "he might come back and run in the Breeders' Cup steeplechase. He's bloody good. In fact, he's amazing."
Pleasant Tap (third from the rail) surged on the far turn.
His visit to the winner's circle was old hat for Hooper.