Signs point to jewel of Derby

Fusaichi Pegasus, `Bullet,' Aptitude latest to raise hopes for thriller on May 6

March 25, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

There comes a time early in the year when each racing fan feels that first tingling rush of excitement over the possibility of an extraordinary Kentucky Derby. For this racing fan, that moment occurred Sunday.

In races on both coasts, 3-year-olds displayed such courage and ability that each easily conjured up the image of a winner's circle celebration in a sea of red roses -- in other words, the winner's circle of the Kentucky Derby.

Six weeks from today, on May 6 at Churchill Downs, as many as 20 horses will compete for this country's most coveted racing prize. If the contenders who have emerged so far stay healthy and on target, this Derby could be extraordinary in competitiveness and also, perhaps, in quality.

And that bodes well for the Preakness two weeks later at Pimlico.

That certainly seems a strong possibility with the performances Sunday of the colts Fusaichi Pegasus, The Deputy and Anees (one-two-three in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park) and Red Bullet and Aptitude (one-two in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct).

Add those names to Mighty, War Chant, Surfside, Captain Steve, Hal's Hope, High Yield and Postponed -- and others perhaps about to jump into contention -- and you may have a Triple Crown series during which you might just have the time of your life.

In only his third start and first stakes appearance, Red Bullet bulled his way through horses and then accelerated like a Harley to win the one-mile Gotham. A son of Unbridled trained by Joe Orseno, Red Bullet has never lost after launching his career Jan. 8 at Aqueduct.

But by not racing as a 2-year-old, Red Bullet has a mountain of history to overcome. Only one horse has won the Kentucky Derby without the experience of racing at 2: Apollo in 1882.

Perhaps even more impressive than Red Bullet was the Gotham runner-up, the A.P. Indy colt Aptitude, Trained by Bobby Frankel and racing for the first time since Jan. 1, Aptitude erupted down the stretch after being trapped behind horses with the look of a horse begging for more distance, such as the Derby's 1 1/4 miles.

Aptitude and Red Bullet will meet again in the Wood Memorial Stakes April 15 at Aqueduct.

California-based trainer Neil Drysdale said this week that he is leaning toward sending Fusaichi (foo-sah-EE-chee) Pegasus to the Wood, as well. The Mr. Prospector colt (a $4 million yearling) dazzled onlookers in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe in his stakes debut. He won by three-quarters of a length without ever feeling the sting of his jockey's whip.

"We've seen many magnificent horses over the years, but we've never seen anything that looked like Fusaichi Pegasus," wrote Steve Haskin, The Blood-Horse magazine's Triple Crown correspondent. "Simply put, we can't take our eyes off him."

The second- and third-place finishers in the San Felipe also flashed their Derby credentials. The Irish-bred The Deputy chased the winner to the wire in only his second start on dirt. And Anees charged into the Derby picture in his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November at Gulfstream Park.

Today, the most interesting Derby prep takes place on the other side of the globe as part of the Dubai World Cup program at Nad al Sheba Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates. The $500,000, 1 1/8-mile UAE Derby will feature Godolphin Racing's top 3-year-olds and perhaps showcase the Arab-owned horses Americans might see in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness.

Trouble is, fans must arise early to watch the race, broadcast on TV- and computer-wagering networks and simulcast for betting at the state's racetracks and off-betting outlets. Post time is 9: 35 a.m. EST.

Chief Seattle, whom Godolphin purchased from his American owners earlier this year for an undisclosed price, will not compete in the UAE Derby. Because he didn't arrive in Dubai until last month, he is behind in training. He will make his 3-year-old debut next month in a trial race in Dubai.

Also today, the $600,000 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park will feature 3-year-olds struggling to make the spring classics. Among them is Country Signature, a Pimlico-based colt trained by Fran Campitelli. Racing in Maryland and Delaware, the Florida-bred Country Pine colt has never finished worse than third.

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