Curtain rises in East on classy `Pegasus'

With Wood win, colt would top Derby list

April 13, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The big horse has landed in the Big Apple. Perhaps the world will now see what all the fuss is about.

The No. 1 contender for the Kentucky Derby, Fusaichi (pronounced foo-sah-EE-chee) Pegasus, will make his East Coast debut Saturday in the $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. He arrived from California with a regal pedigree, a mind-boggling price tag and a reputation for greatness.

"He's the most talented horse I've seen in 10 years," said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, 50-percent owner of The Deputy, winner of last weekend's Santa Anita Derby.

By winning that $1 million race, The Deputy soared toward the head of the class of 3-year-olds marching to the spring classics. An Irish-bred who raced at 2 in England, The Deputy has competed four times in this country, winning three. His only loss was to Fusaichi Pegasus in the San Felipe Stakes last month at Santa Anita Park.

Having beaten the best in the West, a victory in the Wood would propel Fusaichi Pegasus onward to Churchill Downs as the undisputed favorite for the Kentucky Derby. The Derby will take place May 6, followed two weeks later by the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course.

Fusaichi Pegasus belongs to Japanese businessman Fusao Seki guchi. At the 1998 Keeneland July yearling sale, Sekiguchi paid $4 million for the son of the great stallion Mr. Prospector, who died last summer at 29, and the Danzig mare Angel Fever, a full sister to Pine Bluff, winner of the 1992 Preakness.

Sekiguchi named the colt by combining his first name with "ichi," Japanese for No. 1. That has proved prophetic, as Fusaichi Pegasus is tops in polls of 3-year-olds by the Daily Racing Form and National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

A late-developing colt in the patient hands of trainer Neil Drysdale, Fusaichi Pegasus lost his first race by a neck Dec. 11 at Hollywood Park. Since then, he has won three straight at Santa Anita -- one each in January, February and March.

A native of England, Drysdale is one of the most respected trainers in the world. He said he shipped the colt to the Wood believing that the deeper racing surface at Aqueduct would suit the hard-pounding colt better than the firm track at Santa Anita.

And this way Fusaichi Pegasus will not clash with War Chant, Drysdale's other top 3-year-old, until the Derby. War Chant finished second to The Deputy in the Santa Anita Derby.

California jockey Kent Desormeaux has ridden War Chant twice and Fusaichi Pegasus three times. He'll fly to New York to ride Fusaichi Pegasus in the Wood.

"As far as these two horses are concerned, you can just throw a coin up in the air," Desormeaux said. "These horses can really, really run. And they're both very agile. They're like cats.

"When they decide to play, you've got to have your leg muscles tensed up, because they can do some tricks. You have to pull out all your riding skills to keep them between your legs."

But whereas War Chant's stride is graceful and effortless, Desormeaux said, Fusaichi Pegasus' is "just so powerful. You know when his feet hit the ground.

"But he still covers ground like you wouldn't believe. It's just the weight of the beast. He carries a lot of flesh. But he has the agility to carry that flesh. He's very strong. He's very proud. He's captivating."

One knock against Fusaichi Pegasus is his temperament. Rival horsemen in California said the colt is headstrong and excitable, traits that could haunt him before a boisterous crowd at the Kentucky Derby.

Drysdale said that claim is exaggerated.

"I wouldn't say he's temperamental," the trainer said. "That implies he's a nervous horse. That's not the case. He's rambunctious and playful, a high-spirited horse. He likes to do things at his own leisure."

Another knock is that Fusaichi Pegasus lacks experience, that his wins in California came while running freely outside horses, that he has not encountered and overcome adversity. Desormeaux said that whatever Fusaichi Pegasus lacks in experience he more than makes up for with intelligence and Drysdale's astute training.

"He is a fabulous learner," Desormeaux said of the colt.

Despite a potential 11-horse field in the Wood, Drysdale is not concerned about Fusaichi Pegasus' inexperience, temperament or anything else.

"Have you seen him run?" the trainer said. "He's talented. Now he's got to prove it to the world."

NOTE: The Wood Memorial (on tape delay) and the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby (live) will be nationally televised Saturday on ABC between 5 and 6 p.m., although not on the network's Baltimore affiliate. Channel 2 will broadcast college lacrosse instead.

WMAR will televise the hourlong horse racing show, "Road to the Triple Crown," beginning at 11: 35 p.m. Saturday. Post times are 4: 45 p.m. for the Wood, 5: 25 p.m. for the Blue Grass and 5: 45 p.m. for the Arkansas Derby.

Bettors nationwide can wager on "The Big 3 Pick 3" by selecting the winners of the three races. The minimum bet is $1. The takeout is 20 percent.

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