Pulpit getting all the early Derby preaching Claiborne Farm-bred also Florida favorite

March 13, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. -- The name of the race is the Florida Derby, but the phenomenon running rampant in southern Florida is Pulpit-mania.

Pulpit is the next Cigar, the second coming of Secretariat. He is the salvation of horse racing. He is the cure for the common cold. Pulpit-maniacs get a little carried away.

But the fact is, Pulpit is racing's newest superstar -- after only three races. And Saturday here at Gulfstream Park, Pulpit is the early 3-5 favorite to win the $500,000 Florida Derby, the year's first Grade I prep race for the Kentucky Derby.

His seven competitors include Captain Bodgit, trained by Marylander Gary Capuano. But Captain Bodgit, despite five wins in eight races, hardly gets a second look alongside Pulpit.

"I've never seen a horse get all this publicity, especially with just three starts," said Dell Hancock, whose family owns Pulpit as well as Claiborne Farm, where Pulpit was bred.

When Pulpit works out in the mornings, exercise riders, jockeys, reporters and trainers pack the viewing stands along the backstretch. TV crews show up to film his gallops.

The sports' premier publication, the Daily Racing Form, publishes a daily "Pulpit Watch." One entry this week began: "Claiborne Farm's Pulpit walked for 30 minutes Wednesday morning."

But it's not the walking that enthralls the multitudes. In each of Pulpit's three races -- a maiden, an allowance and the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes -- he recorded the fastest time for the distance this season at Gulfstream Park.

On Monday, in Pulpit's final major work before the Florida Derby, he breezed five-eighths of a mile in 59 1/5 seconds -- the fastest five-furlong work of the morning. By comparison, Skip Away, last year's champion 3-year-old colt, ran the same distance the same day in 1 minute, 1/5 of a second.

"I get on him in the mornings, and he works these ungodly times," said jockey Shane Sellers of Pulpit (Sellers also pilots Skip Away). "And I know the whole time I had a strong hold of him. It's scary to think what he could do if I just let him drop his head and go.

"He's the total package, I can tell you that. He has the ability to be the best horse I ever sat on."

And Frank Brothers, Pulpit's mild-mannered and understated trainer, said Pulpit could be the best horse he's ever trained.

"Hansel was probably the best," Brothers said. "But you can't compare Pulpit to Hansel yet. Hansel raced at 2. Hansel won two of the three legs of the Triple Crown. And Hansel was a champion.

"This horse has only run three races. But this is a very talented horse."

The knock against Pulpit is that he did not race as a 2-year-old. Only one horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby without racing at 2, and that was Apollo in 1882.

But at the sports books in Las Vegas, where betting on the Kentucky Derby commenced in January, Pulpit is the overwhelming favorite.

He did not race last year because of a stress fracture -- described as a very small crack -- in his left front leg. He missed three months of training as the injury healed on its own, Brothers said.

"Thank God he's been fine," Brothers said, "and he's never looked back."

Pulpit's pedigree is as classy as they come -- a son of A.P. Indy (and grandson of Seattle Slew) out of Preach, a Mr. Prospector mare.

"I don't like to talk about other trainers' horses," said Nick Zito, who starts Acceptable and Jack Flash in the Florida Derby. "But you can't fault Pulpit.

"He looks beautiful. He trains beautiful. He runs beautiful. He's bred beautiful. There's nothing bad about this horse.

"It's an amazing thing he's doing. But no matter how you look at it, he's playing catch-up."

The lack of seasoning may become a factor when Pulpit encounters adversity: a bump at the break, a shove at the turn, a jockey's scream in his ear, a clump of mud in his face.

So far, he has not been challenged down the stretch. No horse has looked him in the eye and issued that late-race challenge that separates the champions from the ordinary.

"He's got to continue to progress, no doubt about it," Brothers said., "I just hope everybody's right about him, that's all."

Florida Derby

Where: Gulfstream Park

When: 4: 37 p.m. Saturday

TV: Ch. 2 Purse: $500,000

Distance: 1 1/8 miles

Favorite: Pulpit

+ Md. entrant: Captain Bodgit

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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