Leroy Jolley Is a New Breed of Thoroughbred Trainer, and Foolish Pleasure Is His Prize

It is 5 o’clock in the morning at Saratoga racetrack. A bay Thoroughbred, reaching for speed, slices through the heavy ground fog along the back-stretch. The slap of the crop, the flutter of the colt’s nostrils, the pounding of its hooves on the moist earth combine in familiar chorus to the lone man standing on a green reviewing platform. He checks his stopwatch, then, satisfied, walks down the steps and back toward No. 25 barn. His name is LeRoy Jolley and he is the most successful and controversial young trainer in racing today.

Saratoga is still the loveliest track on the circuit, a panorama of tradition and patinaed opulence. Owners and well-heeled railbirds gather beneath the clapboard Victorian pavilion to watch the early morning workouts over fat sausages and eggs. But the old ambience is spotted with harbingers of change. The Latin and southern black accents of exercise boys and “hot walkers”—the stable hands who cool off sweaty racers—are being supplanted by the soft voices of pretty girls in bright pom-pommed caps. It is believed that they have a calming effect on the horses.

More significantly, the trainers, those veteran authorities who buy and sell horses and organize the permanently traveling sport of kings, are giving way to youth also—born-on-the-backstretch, weaned-on-the-bit men like Roger Laurin, Bill Ressequet, Bob Wingfield and LeRoy Jolley. The trainer of Foolish Pleasure, 1975 Kentucky Derby winner and the other half of the tragic match race that ended with the destruction of Ruffian, Jolley has outgrown any sentimentalism about the animals. His business is racing, and sleek, unadulterated speed is the winning ticket. “Ten years ago,” says one racing expert, “most of the trainers were around 60—roughhewn and colorful. LeRoy Jolley is different. Sure, he’s lived with horses since the day he was born. But he’s vital. And he’s smart, awful smart.”

A shade below medium height, Jolley is as trim as the horses he trains and almost as powerfully built. While old-line trainers wear wide-brimmed Panama straws and sunglasses to ease the pain of a night passed with bourbon and poker, Jolley, a balding blond, is crisp, combed, and redolent of expensive colognes. He wears a polo shirt (a concession to a sport he participated in before business got so good), twill trousers and tasseled loafers. He gives quick orders to the hot walkers and the grooms who are wiping horses with sponges and scrapers in swirls of morning mist. He adjusts the butane flame under a hot water barrel. Then he paces the infield with the gait of a worried football coach on the sidelines. He has two horses running today—first things first—but his abiding concern is Foolish Pleasure and the $100,000-added Travers Stakes, the biggest, richest race at Saratoga. A win will put the colt over the $1 million earnings mark—a rare accomplishment for a trainer of any age. Jolley is only 37.

He was born in Hot Springs, Ark., within earshot of Oaklawn Park racetrack where his father, trainer Moody Jolley, was running a string of horses. “All I ever wanted to do was train horses,” says the son, checking his stride to inspect the fetlock of a silky, black 2-year-old. “My dad was and still is one of the great horsemen in America. It’s the only world I know.”

Young Jolley’s early academic training was regularly interrupted as the family moved along the circuit, but his education in horses was steady and sure. Having played in the shed areas since he was a toddler, LeRoy began walking hots for his father at the age of 7 and started an apprenticeship as an exercise boy. He graduated from Miami High in 1956, the cornerback on the school’s state championship football team and all-around crack athlete. Within hours of completing one horseless year at the University of Miami, he hopped a plane for New York and began his formal career as an assistant trainer at Belmont.

A year later, in 1958, LeRoy married Myrna Griffiths, his sweetheart since he was 16 and she was a Miami High Stingarees cheerleader. “I’d go to the barn with Lee every day,” says Myrna Jolley, a vivacious brunette, “but I stayed in the car because I was afraid of horses. After we married we were constantly on the road and I didn’t mind then because I’d never been out of Florida.” But after the children came along (LeRoy Jr., 14, Laurie, 12, and Timmy, 9), their family life took on the cruel shape of Jolley’s own. The children transferred from school to school, and wherever he was, Jolley was working 18 hours a day. Myrna has finally learned to love horses, but she loves her family more. “The back lot is not the best place for children,” she insists. “The boys walk horses like LeRoy did, but I don’t want Laurie out there.” With New York on year-round racing now, the nomad life may soon be over, and the Jolleys will move up from Florida for good. Meanwhile, Myrna says with cheerful resignation, “You do what you have to. We’ve been living part-time on Long Island for three years and so far only two people have spoken to us.”

Once LeRoy had taken his new bride, he wasn’t long in bringing her a winner. He got his trainer’s license at 20 and his first winning horse that same season at Hialeah—a 2-year-old named Somnus. Three years later, in 1962, the young trainer saddled his first big-money stakes winner. Jolley had some trouble with jockey Bill Hartack, who was reluctant to take orders from a “youngster,” but the trainer helped his reputation greatly when the swift sprinter Ridan, with Manuel Ycaza up, won the Florida Derby and became a Kentucky Derby even-money favorite. Ridan sprinted the distance and finished third behind two horses he had beaten in a breeze nine days earlier. Later that year, Ridan won the Arlington Classic. To that point in his career, Jolley’s success had been, to some extent, a family effort. His father was usually available for advice, and his first three winners were owned by his mother, Dorothy, bookkeeper and silent partner in the Jolley coterie. Then he struck out on his own and trained some good stakes horses—Betoken, Chalina, Mr. Brogann. Still, until this year, his track record was relatively modest.

The dawn workouts are over, and in his silver Mercedes Jolley drives over to look at some yearlings. A hush falls over the yard as a breeder parades a sturdy little gray before LeRoy, his father and Foolish Pleasure’s owner John L. Greer. Jolley’s mastery of his profession is undisputed: he has a computer-like knowledge of racing history which can summon up bloodlines and past achievements, as if a switch had been flicked. When the computer is set aside (for yearlings are really an unknown quantity), an old-timer’s instinct takes over.

“All the older trainers were reared on farms where they learned through trial and error,” says Jolley. “So was I, but they didn’t have antibiotics, good vets or the incentive of big money. I started as a child with the best tutoring around—my father and ‘Sunny Jim’ Fitzsimmons [they had a barn next to the famous trainer’s in Florida]. So I just knew what to do sooner. I remember asking Sunny Jim about a sprint horse I had that lots of people thought couldn’t go the distance. He said, ‘Son, you take the speed and let the others catch you.’ ”

The biggest risks come at the yearling sales, and Jolley, who tends to dismiss his success as “good luck,” knows that his current hot run has to be more than chance. “Every trainer has an ideal horse in mind,” he says, “and the better a horse measures up to that ideal the more you’re apt to buy him. Sure, you study bloodlines and conformation. But I only buy a horse when I feel I can’t live without it. The owners have to trust your judgment.”

Given trusting owners (LeRoy picks owners as carefully as he does horses) and a “yearling he can’t live without,” the next step is schooling—breaking the horse to saddle, bit and the starting gate. Most trainers begin right after the midsummer sales, but Jolley holds off. “We’re in no hurry. July through September are the worst months for working young horses—the weather is oppressive and the ground is hard and dangerous. I put my yearlings to pasture for two or three months to play and toughen up.”

In October the schooling begins, on farms in Virginia and Florida. Then, in early December, they are sent to Hialeah in Miami. “A racehorse needs time to get used to new people, new sounds, the new look of things. A horse trained in isolation is apt to turn out spooky. At Hialeah they’ll be exposed to everything they’ll ever encounter anywhere. I mean, where else do you get a pink flamingo flying by?” By April, when the 2-year-olds are ready to race, Jolley talks over each horse’s disposition—whether it needs urging or is too eager—with the jockeys. “The best jocks remember the faults and favors of all the horses around. We review each entry in each race and plan our strategy accordingly. But finally it’s up to the horse.”

At the yearling sale John L. Greer glances at the little gray, then listens to LeRoy’s quiet commentary. He has learned. After several owners at the 1973 Saratoga sales turned down a particular yearling because of a toe-in fault, LeRoy persuaded Greer, a Knoxville bakery executive, to buy Foolish Pleasure at a bargain-basement $20,000. The stocky, scrappy horse won 10 out of 11 starts, losing only the Florida Derby when he tore the soles of his front hooves. Then he won the Derby, and came in second in the Preakness and Belmont by a length. “He does everything right,” says Jolley. “You could guide him with a cobweb.” In the surge of sorrow that followed the tragic death of Ruffian, few people remembered that the oddly underrated Foolish Pleasure had run portions of the mile and a quarter in near-record time.

But LeRoy Jolley noticed, of course, and four days before the running of the Travers came a report that he was putting together a $4.5 million syndicate to put Foolish Pleasure out to stud. It was the eighth richest syndicate in racing history (Secretariat at $6 million is tops). A stallion can service 36 mares in a season, and of these shares, 32 will be offered to the nation’s leading breeders at $125,000 apiece. Two shares will remain with owner John Greer, one each with LeRoy and his father. Unlike most stallions syndicated for stud, Foolish Pleasure will continue to run as a 4-year-old. Racing a stud is highly unusual, since an injury could finish its entire gold-bearing career. But then, LeRoy Jolley, who stands to earn a $450,000 syndication fee plus his regular 10 percent share of each purse, is not a conventional trainer.

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