Sunday, May 07, 2000

Pegasus makes it look easy




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Fusaichi Pegasus, wearing clods of dirt, was 15 lengths behind in the early going.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        LOUISVILLE — This is what greatness looks like: a runaway horse, pulling away with each stride down the stretch, the jockey's whip more an ornament than an implement.

columnist
        This was Fusaichi Pegasus Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs — winning the Kentucky Derby on cruise control.

        The Run for the Roses has been run faster. It has been won by wider margins. It has required trickier trips through thicker traffic. But it has rarely been won with such economy of effort, such seeming restraint, such modulated majesty.

        If Fusaichi Pegasus broke a sweat, it was on account of the heat, not his exertion. If he was winded at the finish line, his breathing was so unlabored that jockey Kent Desormeaux said, "He couldn't have even blown out a birthday candle.” If there is any more to this colt than met the eye Saturday, the Triple Crown is no longer a distinct possibility, but an anticlimax.

        “When I laid eyes on the colt, I knew he was going to be a Derby winner,” said Fusao Sekiguchi, the colt's owner. “I was willing to pay $5 million or whatever it cost to acquire him.”

        Sekiguchi's winning bid at the 1998 Keeneland yearling sale was $4 million, a sum that exceeds the previous record price for a Derby horse by more than a million dollars. D. Wayne Lukas, who has trained four Derby winners, dropped out of the bidding at $3.9 million. Breeder Arthur Hancock III sensed Fusaichi Pegasus' greatness as a foal. Around Stone Farm, the then-unnamed bay colt was commonly called “Superman.”

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Fusaichi Pegasus and Kent Desormeaux (yellow helmet) charge down the stretch.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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A steady winner
        Except for a second-place finish in his lone start as a two-year-old, the horse has performed with unbroken brilliance under the delicate training of Neil Drysdale. Unbeaten as a three-year-old, Fusaichi Pegasus was a 2-1 proposition by post time Saturday. He reached the finish line as the first Derby favorite to win the race since 1979, and a presumed superhorse.

        “I hope for the industry's stake he can continue,” Desormeaux said. “The sport needs a superstar.”

        Derby Day notwithstanding, thoroughbred racing is a business dominated by decline. A single star attraction cannot reverse that trend, but it might stop the bleeding for a bit.

        Fusaichi Pegasus has that kind of potential. When More Than Ready reached the eighth pole with the lead Saturday, jockey John Valazquez thought he had the race won. Then he saw a bay blur to his right and instantly sensed his own fulity.

        “I knew I couldn't catch him,” he said.

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Fusaichi Pegasus leads Aptitude to the finish line.
(AP photo)
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So far away
        Alex Solis, giving chase on runner-up Aptitude, said his trip was “just about perfect” and not nearly good enough.

        “I was trying to reach (Fusaichi Pegasus), but he was running so easy,” Solis said. “He is obviously a very special horse.”

        He completed the mile and a quarter in 2:01.12, equaling the sixth-fastest time in 126 Derbies. Yet that time might have been better with a more favorable post position — Fusaichi Pegasus started from the 15 hole, in the auxiliary gate — or a less gentle ride from his jockey.

        At the top of the stretch, Desormeaux made a subtle swipe with his whip — “a love tap,” he called it — and Fusaichi Pegasus shifted out of second gear. Down the stretch, he was dazzling.

        “It was over at that point,” Desormeaux said. “He took off like the best horse I've been involved with at this stage of the game.”

        Desormeaux won the 1998 Derby aboard Real Quiet. Fusaichi Pegasus might be better.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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Drysdale humble in victory