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Original Issue


By post time for last Saturday's $200,000 Fountain of Youth
Stakes at Gulfstream Park, the hype surrounding Pulpit had
reached proportions that would have made even a televangelist
blush. Earlier in the meet at the Hallandale, Fla., track, the
precocious 3-year-old colt had won his first two career starts
by a combined total of 14 1/4 lengths, in times so fast that the
track clockers were doing double takes at their stopwatches. In
Las Vegas most of the Kentucky Derby future books were pounded
so heavily with Pulpit money that he became the early
favorite--never mind that no horse unraced as a 2-year-old has
won the Derby since Apollo in 1882. "I hope they're right," said
a bemused Frank Brothers, who trains the colt for Claiborne
Farm, "but he still has a lot to prove."

The crowd of 19,789, largest to attend the race since
Spectacular Bid won it 18 years ago, included more than a few
skeptics. By day's end, however, they were hard to find. For the
first time Pulpit ran against stakes winners, failed to take the
early lead, got stung in the face by dirt clods thrown by the
leaders' hooves and had his glistening bay flanks lashed by
jockey Shane Sellers' whip. No matter. He came rolling from
three lengths off the pace to surge to the lead at the top of
the stretch and galloped to a length-and-a-half victory over
32-1 shot Blazing Sword.

Pulpit's time, a sizzling 1:41 4/5 for the 1 1/16 miles, was the
fastest for the distance at Gulfstream this year. It was as if a
high school kid who had run in only two track meets in his life
got thrown into the Olympic trials--and won so convincingly that
he became the gold medal favorite. "God, he's awesome," said
veteran horseman Cot Campbell, whose Dogwood Stable owns the
fifth-place Jack Flash. "It's unbelievable that this horse could
be ready to do those things. God knows what he'll do next time."

The decision by Brothers and Claiborne president Seth Hancock to
run Pulpit in the Fountain of Youth at all was a huge gamble.
And it drew attention to a budding mystery that already
surrounds the colt. After Pulpit's first win, on Jan. 11,
Hancock told Washington Post turf writer Andrew Beyer that the
horse didn't start as a 2-year-old partly because of a hind leg
fracture suffered in February 1996 during a workout at a
training center in South Carolina. Last week Brothers resolutely
refused to confirm that. There was "an injury," he said, but
nothing that required surgery. "All I'm going to say," Brothers
said, "is that he didn't race because of normal growing pains."
Hancock added to the enigma by declining to address the question
all week.

What is known is that all last year Hancock and Brothers treated
Pulpit as if he were a rare and fragile piece of porcelain,
which in a sense he is. He's a homebred son of A.P. Indy, the
1992 Horse of the Year, and the first foal out of the Mr.
Prospector mare Preach, a Grade I stakes winner. Sprinkled
through his pedigree are some of the sport's most revered names:
Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Honest Pleasure, among others. A
natural, right? "You never know," Brothers says. "There's a line
used a lot in picking horses: Mrs. Mays had [11 kids], but only
one Willie."

Thoroughbred racing, which has watched its fan base, its
newspaper space and its TV and radio time shrink relentlessly
for years, could certainly use an equine Willie Mays. If Pulpit
can storm the Florida Derby on March 15 and the Blue Grass at
Keeneland on April 12--his current schedule--he will arrive at
Churchill Downs as the most ballyhooed Derby favorite since
Spectacular Bid, giving the sport the sort of glamour horse it
desperately needs and adding luster to Claiborne, already the
most revered name in Kentucky's $1.2 billion a year thoroughbred

Those are big ifs. But even grizzled horsemen were impressed
with the way Pulpit, after only two starts and two weeks' rest,
dominated a field that included such relatively seasoned young
stars as Acceptable, a strong runner-up to Boston Harbor in last
year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile; Arthur L. and Confide, a couple
of Florida colts with withering speed; and California ship-in
Wrightwood. The day before the race, Nick Zito, who trains
Acceptable for George Steinbrenner, spoke for the majority when
he said of Pulpit, "I was impressed with his first race and more
impressed with his second--but now he's got to show me." He did.

Although the nervous Pulpit was lathered with sweat before the
race and had to be taken out of the post parade, he was ready
for business by the time the starting gate sprang open. True to
their form, Arthur L. and Confide gunned to the early lead. But
instead of foolishly chasing them, Sellers tucked Pulpit in on
the rail, three to four lengths off the pace, and bided his
time. At the turn for home, Sellers asked the colt to get
serious. Swinging three wide, Pulpit glided quickly to the lead,
Blazing Sword taking chase behind him. With Sellers first
shaking his whip at the colt and then striking him repeatedly
approaching the eighth pole, Pulpit drew away to victory.

After Sellers guided the weary Pulpit back to the winner's
circle and dismounted, Brothers charged up and gave the jockey a
big kiss on the cheek. Sellers laughed. "You were going to be a
hero or a butthead, buddy," Sellers said. "But you look pretty
good right now."

Ah, but let's not get carried away quite yet. Ron McAnally has a
formidable 3-year-old named Mud Route prepping in California for
the San Rafael Stakes on March 2, and a slew of other
accomplished horsemen also lie in wait. D. Wayne Lukas, who has
won seven of the last eight Triple Crown races, comes to mind,
as do Zito, Charlie Whittingham and Bob Baffert. None of them
are about to E-mail Churchill Downs suggesting that the Kentucky
Derby trophy be turned over to Pulpit.

Traditionally, the 50-year-old Brothers has played a notch below
that league; until now, he was best known for winning the 1991
Preakness and Belmont with Hansel. Since the decision to run in
the Fountain of Youth, Brothers had been waiting to exhale, and
last Saturday, as twilight descended upon Gulfstream, he wanted
only to savor the moment.

"Yeah, I heard what Shane said to me out on the track," Brothers
said as he headed back to his barn. "He was talking about the
whole deal: The decision to step him way, way up in class; the
decision to rate him and see if he could stand getting sand in
his face. I told him to ride this horse like he was somebody.
And he did. This was a huge step for this horse." The trainer
knows that, for the moment, at least, Pulpit holds almost
limitless promise. "It's a little hard to keep your emotions

Amen, Brothers, to that.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO The untested Pulpit felt the whip for the first time in the stretch and responded by sailing to the lead. [Jockey Shane Sellers on horse Pulpit in race]