Swift Pulpit steps up to 'Youth' stage

ON HORSE RACING

February 16, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Fans in Maryland, even those who don't like to leave the comfort of their living rooms, can glimpse racing's newest sensation Saturday in a potentially spectacular race in Florida.

Pulpit, the most-talked-about horse in the East after only two races, will run in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The key prep for the Triple Crown races, graced with other budding 3-year-old stars, as well, will be televised on ESPN.

Frank L. Brothers, Pulpit's respected trainer, said Thursday that he and the colt's owners at Claiborne Farm had decided to enter the lightly raced colt against more experienced runners in what should be a highly competitive Grade II stakes.

"It's a huge step," Brothers said from his barn at Gulfstream Park. "But I think he's a quality horse who might be the kind who can take that huge step."

In his debut Jan. 11 at Gulfstream Park, he blistered the seven-furlong course in 1 minute, 21 4/5 seconds, winning by 7 1/2 lengths and registering an incredible Beyer Speed Figure of 107. And he did it under wraps from jockey Shane Sellers.

After several blazing workouts, including a half mile in 42 2/5 seconds, Pulpit started Feb. 8 for the second time in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race. Stealing the spotlight from Skip Away in the Donn Handicap later in the day, Pulpit cruised to a 6 3/4 -length victory. His time of 1: 42 was the fastest at that distance during Gulfstream Park's winter meet.

As Pulpit, his bay coat glistening in the Florida sunlight, pranced back toward the grandstand after the race, the crowd burst into applause as if this were Cigar.

The next day, the Miami Herald reported -- a bit prematurely, a reasonable person might conclude -- that Pulpit's performance "did nothing to dispel the growing notion that he is a colt with unlimited ability and one who could emerge as the second coming of Secretariat."

Billy Turner and Barclay Tagg, trainers from Maryland stabled for the winter at Gulfstream Park, fell silent when asked about the last time a horse generated this much excitement after only two races. Turner finally said: "It's been a while." Tagg offered: "I guess Ruffian did."

But both said they've been awed by the young horse -- a royally bred son of A. P. Indy (and grandson of Seattle Slew) out of the Mr. Prospector mare Preach.

"He's just very, very, very impressive," Tagg said. "He's got it all."

"He's very fast. He does it easily. And he's got a beautiful way of going," said Turner, who trained Seattle Slew during his 1977 Triple Crown sweep. "People are always looking for another choice on the Derby trail, and this horse has given them one."

Although Pulpit is now as low as 2-1 in Derby future-book betting in Las Vegas, it is worth noting that only one horse -- Apollo in 1882 -- has won the Kentucky Derby without racing at 2.

This is where Pulpit's story gets murky.

It's been reported that Pulpit didn't race last year because he fractured a hind leg. Brothers declined to comment on that.

"You're opening up a can of worms there," he said. "I've said before that he had growing pains at 2. The horse has been fine, knock on wood. Let's hope he stays that way."

But Brothers acknowledged that Pulpit's task will become more trying -- physically and mentally -- as he closes in on the Derby. His races so far have gone his way -- no mishaps, no pressure from other horses.

"It's not always going to be that way," said Brothers, who trained Hansel in 1991 to victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. "As you go farther down the road, they slap you around leaving the starting gate. They shut you off and things like that.

"These are things he needs to prove he can overcome."

Said Tagg: "You never know till they get looked in the eye. But this horse looks like he might be a horse that won't get looked in the eye."

Added Turner: "If you're short on seasoning, you've got to be much the best to win. He may be. We'll just have to wait and see."

Formidable field

Pulpit will have plenty of company when he steps onto the track for the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Possible starters include most of the top 3-year-olds in the East: Acceptable, Arthur L., Blazing Sword, Confide, Frisk Me Now, Jules, Ordway, Shammy Davis, The Silver Move, Wrightwood and Captain Bodgit.

Captain Bodgit is trained by Gary Capuano, based at Bowie but also currently stabled at Hialeah Park. Captain, as Capuano calls him, not only has new owners, but he'll also sport a new jockey, Alex Solis.

Barry Irwin, co-owner of Team Valor, the California corporation that recently paid $500,000 for Captain Bodgit, hired Solis to replace Frank Douglas, the colt's Maryland jockey.

"He's the top guy out here right now," Irwin said of Solis. "He looks and rides a lot like Laffit Pincay Jr. He's muscular and

powerful. He gets a lot of run out of horses in the stretch."

Captain Bodgit is a stretch runner.

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