LeRoy Jolley, a second-generation trainer under whose guidance Foolish Pleasure and Genuine Risk won the Kentucky Derby, died on Dec. 18 in Albany. He was 79.
His son LeRoy Jr. said the cause was lung cancer.
Growing up near the Oaklawn Park racetrack in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Jolley never wanted to do anything but follow his father, Moody, into the business of training thoroughbreds. He was a hot walker at age 7 — walking horses after a workout to cool them off — and later an assistant trainer.
By 19, he had his trainer’s license, and five years later, at 24, he took Ridan, a sprinter owned by his mother, Dorothy, to the 1962 Derby, where he finished third.
But it was Foolish Pleasure who brought LeRoy Jolley his first measure of track immortality.
“As a kid growing up in the horse business and around the racetrack,” he told BloodHorse magazine in 2015, “you think that someday you’d love to have a horse good enough to run in this race or that race. And for me, Foolish Pleasure was the horse that not only ran in them but won those races.”
Foolish Pleasure had won 10 of his 11 career starts when he faced 14 other horses as the favorite at the 1975 Derby. Jolley was pleased that his horse had drawn the No. 3 slot, a favorable position from the starting gate, compared with the undesirable No. 15 slot that Foolish Pleasure ran (and won) from at the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack a month earlier.
“He’s had all the bad luck he needs for a while,” Jolley said before the Derby. “Let somebody else take the worst of it this time.”
Foolish Pleasure’s jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, rode the colt conservatively until he orchestrated a furious stretch run near the end that overtook Avatar and Diabolo to win by 1 3/4 lengths.
After finishing second in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Foolish Pleasure faced Ruffian, an unbeaten filly, in a much-ballyhooed match race on July 6, 1975, at Belmont Park.
Holding the lead after nearly half a mile, Ruffian suddenly shattered both sesamoid bones in her right foreleg and had to be euthanized. Recognizing that horse racing can be a rough, heartbreaking business, Jolley offered an unsentimental view of Ruffian’s death. After the race, he said, “This game wasn’t cut out for anybody wearing short pants.”
Nearly five years later, another filly, Genuine Risk, brought more glory to Jolley. But he nearly stood in her way. After her third-place finish in the 1980 Wood Memorial, he vowed that he would not send her to Churchill Downs for the Derby. “I found out what I wanted to learn yesterday,” he said. “There’s no sense shipping her 1,000 miles to find it out again.”
But after discussions with her owners, Bertram and Diana Firestone, he reversed his decision: Genuine Risk traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, where she became the first filly to win the Derby since Regret in 1915. And, like Foolish Pleasure, Genuine Risk finished second at the Preakness and Belmont.
“She wanted to win, and she would run so hard after some of her races, she just practically would lay down for three or four days,” Jolley told The Associated Press in 2008 after Genuine Risk died at age 31.
Leroy Stanton Jolley was born on Jan. 14, 1938, in Hot Springs, a hotbed for horse racing known as the Saratoga of the South. He would follow his father on the racing circuit, where, in Florida, his barn was next to Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who trained two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935.
“I can’t imagine better tutors than my father and Sunny Jim,” he told The New York Times in 1981.
Jolley left the University of Miami after one year, preferring to be schooled in barns and paddocks.
He had his first winner in 1958 with Somnus, which his father bred and his mother owned.
After taking Ridan to the Kentucky Derby and the Travers Stakes (which he lost by a nose to Jaipur), Jolley took a low-profile detour for nearly a decade, training horses in New York, Illinois and Florida to modest acclaim. He gained greater renown for Foolish Pleasure’s victory at the 1975 Derby, and for his anger about track conditions at Pimlico Race Course after Honest Pleasure (who shared a sire with Foolish Pleasure) finished second at the Preakness Stakes in 1976.
That year, Jolley starred in a commercial for Miller Lite beer with Foolish Pleasure and Honest Pleasure. The campaign — which used sports celebrities to market a beer that “tastes great” and was also “less filling” — put Jolley in a barn at Belmont Park with his two horses.
“I’m a man who’s known for his pleasures,” Jolley said. “These two I train. And this one I drink. But what I love best is the way it tastes. What a pleasure! Right, guys?”
After their whinnied assent, Jolley added, “Am I a trainer or am I a trainer?”
In addition to his son Leroy Jr., Jolley is survived by another son, Tim; a daughter, Laura Jolley; two grandchildren; and a sister, Rosalyn McCullars. His marriage to the former Myrna Griffiths ended in divorce. He lived in Saratoga and Ocala, Florida.
Over his career, Jolley saddled 991 winners and won purses of more than $35 million. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, where three of his horses (Genuine Risk, Foolish Pleasure and Manila) are also enshrined. He retired for a while but returned in recent years to train horses again.
They were not the high-quality horses he had trained in the past. “The people that owned them were trying to find out if they were good enough to compete in New York, and most of them weren’t very good,” LeRoy Jolley Jr. said.
But it was a world that the elder Jolley missed.
“I got bored,” he told The Paulick Report, a horse-racing news website, in 2016. “I don’t play golf anymore and I don’t fish, so I went back to doing what I know.”