For the most fleeting of moments last Saturday, as the field of
19 horses hit the final turn for home, jockey Alex Solis looked
down the 440 yards of homestretch dirt and saw his most fervent
dreams coming true. His mount, a dark bay colt named Aptitude,
had grabbed the bit and was moving powerfully, less than four
diminishing lengths off the lead. He sensed that this Kentucky
Derby was his to win. "It looked heavenly," Solis said. "My
horse was running so easily."
Then, in a trice, Solis glanced ahead and to his right and saw
jockey Kent Desormeaux swinging his mount, Fusaichi Pegasus,
outside a wall of horses on the bend and sitting almost
motionless on his back as the colt surged forward. "I saw Kent
just galloping along in front of me and I said, 'Oh, s---!'" said
Solis, who had finished a close second in 1997 and '98 but had
not won the Derby in his nine previous starts.
Solis knew instantly that he was in trouble. Desormeaux had
ridden Pegasus with bold confidence from the outset, scooting
along the rail inside heavy traffic, and now Desormeaux was
angling him seven horses wide. The colt, his neck bowed, swept
boldly for home in long, effortless strides. Desormeaux waited
for Pegasus to straighten out and switch leads before launching
his rush from the 3/16 pole. Here the jockey reached for a
shorter hold, a signal for the horse to go, and then he made a
kissing sound with his lips. "He exploded," Desormeaux said. "I
was awestruck. I felt like I could fly. I felt like I had wings."
This was the moment that everyone in racing had been waiting
for at Churchill Downs, the final 300 yards of the 10-furlong
classic and the answer to the defining question of the Triple
Crown season: How good is Fusaichi Pegasus? No one had doubted
his potential. In fact, a small fortune had been gambled on it
in July '98, at the Keeneland yearling sale, when his glowing
physical presence and pedigree forced a spirited bidding war
between a ponytailed Japanese venture capitalist in engineering,
Fusao Sekiguchi, and an American-English-Irish syndicate. The
bidding ended only after Sekiguchi offered $4 million, topping
the syndicate's last bid of $3.9 million. The next day one
member of the syndicate, Satish Sanan, called up Arthur Hancock,
a cobreeder of the colt, and bellowed, "Arthur, I wanted that
"Why the hell did you stop bidding?" Hancock asked.
"I wanted to go higher, but my partners pulled up," said Sanan.
Indeed, the underbidders surrendered only when it appeared that
Sekiguchi would stop at nothing. They were right. "I had a strong
feeling about that horse when I first saw him," Sekiguchi said
through an interpreter. "I had to have him. I had no limits on
how much I would spend." Nor was there any self-restraint in what
Sekiguchi decided to call him. Fusaichi is a blend of the owner's
first name and the Japanese word ichi, which means "number one."
Since Pegasus cruised to a deceptively close,
three-quarter-length victory over The Deputy in the March 19 San
Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, no other 3-year-old stirred the
hopes of the racing world as did this muscular colt with the
model's head and the linebacker's shoulders. Four weeks later
his mystique grew when he pounded a strong field in the Wood
Memorial at Aqueduct, winning by nearly five lengths. He was
evoking memories of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, the Triple
Crown rivals of '89, and some heretical observers even saw in
him the dappled shades of Spectacular Bid, the Derby and
Preakness champion of 1979.
For all this summoning of exalted ghosts, young Pegasus, an
offspring of Mr. Prospector and the Danzig mare Angel Fever, had
his doubters. He did not break his maiden until Jan. 2, and not
since Proud Clarion in 1967 had a horse won the Derby without a
victory as a 2-year-old. Coming off four straight wins, including
the Wood, Pegasus would certainly be favored in the Derby, and no
favorite had won it since Spectacular Bid. Most worrisome,
though, was the colt's reputation as something of a head case. He
balked in the post parade at the Wood, refusing to approach the
gate and delaying the start by three minutes. Then he raised
every eyebrow in River City on the morning of April 27 when, as
he was walking off the track, he reared up, dumped his exercise
rider, lost his balance and tipped over backward, landing on his
So his trainer, Neil Drysdale, spent much of last week deflecting
questions about his charge's mental state. "He's a very playful
and spirited horse," Drysdale insisted. "He's very curious. He
likes to look around."
Though only five lifetime starts had left Pegasus short on
seasoning, no one who knew Drysdale and his talent for
conditioning horses ever doubted his ability to prepare this colt
for the rigors of the Derby. As a native of Surrey, England,
Drysdale had learned the King's English; as a student at the
University of Barcelona he had learned Spanish; and as a protege
of the late Charles Whittingham, one of America's foremost horse
whisperers, he had become fluent in equine, a subtle tongue of
complex yeas and neighs. The 52-year-old Drysdale had never
started a horse in the Derby, though in 1992 he scratched likely
second favorite A.P. Indy on the day of the race because of a
bruise to the horse's left front hoof. Still, Drysdale had won
$52.5 million in purses and trained five champions, including
A.P. Indy, who went on to win the Belmont, the Breeders' Cup
Classic and Horse of the Year honors. Despite his unorthodox
Derby training schedule--rather than drill the colt with speedy
workouts, he lightly walked and jogged him more often than any
trainer in memory--Drysdale's unflinching confidence inspired the
sense that he knew exactly what he was doing.
He did. He had learned to read Fusaichi Pegasus like a book in
braille, through a highly developed sense of touch, and by Derby
Day he had the colt right where he wanted him. Pegasus was a
perfect gentleman in the paddock and post parade. When the gates
sprung open, Desormeaux rode him with as much artistry as
Drysdale had used in training him. Defying the perils of traffic
on the rail, Desormeaux, who won the 1998 Derby aboard Real
Quiet, saved much ground, wheeled Pegasus out on the turn for
home, then roused him only when he had dead aim.
Pegasus snatched the lead at the eighth pole from More Than
Ready, and through those last 220 yards, under a hand ride, he
bounded away to win by 1 1/2 lengths, with Aptitude in futile
pursuit. The winner's time of 2:01 was the sixth fastest in the
126 years the Derby has been run. "Unfortunately, we hooked a
monster today," said Solis.
As Desormeaux rode his glistening, mud-flecked steed past the
cheering crowds, a jubilant Sekiguchi--sporting a walking
stick and a $4 million grin--came to the winner's circle flanked
by four geishas, their faces powdered white, wearing bright
kimonos. Pegasus had answered the big question in his own
colorful terms. In fact, he is very good. "This pretty boy can
run," Desormeaux said.
But it was jockey Corey Nakatani, who finished 13th on Anees, who
drew the winner in the boldest colors: "There's the Triple Crown
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO Turning for home Desormeaux (Number 12, yellow cap) took Fusaichi Pegasus seven wide to find racing room.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BILL FRAKES (2) Flying Pegasus (far left, above) despite being well back going into the first turn, was in command as the field headed for the wire.
Of the stretch run, Desormeaux said, "I was awestruck. I felt
like I could fly."