Winner's untouchable, even by jock

May 07, 2000|By John Eisenberg

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Two words tell the story:

No whip.

Not in the last quarter-mile, at least.

Kent Desormeaux, the jockey of Fusaichi Pegasus, was so sure he was on the winning horse he didn't use his whip even once in the final furlongs of the Kentucky Derby yesterday at Churchill Downs.

Even before "Pegasus" took the lead for good in the middle of the stretch, Desormeaux just sat back and let the colt run.

Please understand. That just doesn't happen.

Any jockey anywhere close to the lead in the stretch of the Derby usually beats a tattoo on the horse's side, offering a graphic portrait of just how desperately a win in America's greatest race is coveted.

Desormeaux, by contrast, was almost a still-life painting in the stretch yesterday.

The whip? Why bother?

Call it the ultimate compliment to the first betting favorite to win the Derby since Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

Even without a jockey's urgings at the end, Fusaichi Pegasus ran away from a field of 18 other horses and finished in a tie for the sixth-fastest time in Derby history.

It equaled the fastest time, period, in 15 years.

Imagine if he'd actually been challenged.

"There was a lot more in the tank than what we saw today," Desormeaux said. "He was breathing so easy [instead of puffing] after we crossed the finish line that he couldn't have blown out a birthday candle."

Not that Desormeaux, who won the 1998 Derby on Real Quiet, was just along for the ride. He had to navigate the usual maze of Derby traffic before the stretch run.

After starting slowly and moving through the first turn behind a dozen horses, the jockey gained ground almost effortlessly on the backside and reached sixth heading into the far turn. There, he ran up against what he called "a wall of horses."

He remembered the only suggestion trainer Neil Drysdale had given him before the race: "Just make sure you're comfortable early, and the horse should do the rest," according to Desormeaux.

That's exactly what happened. Fusaichi Pegasus swept outside the "wall of horses" on the turn and found all the running room he needed heading for home when a 21-1 shot named Wheelaway "There was a lot more in the tank than what we saw today. He was breathing so easy [at the end]."

Kent Desormeaux, `Pegasus' jockey moved sharply inside, cutting off Captain Steve and several others making a run.

"I was concerned about getting trapped behind that wall, but only for an instant," Desormeaux said, "because when I asked my horse to run, he just took off like a rocket. I mean, I've never felt acceleration like that. You probably couldn't tell watching on television. But it was astounding."

The jockey went to the whip only once, at the three-sixteenths pole, just as the horse was starting to pull away.

"And that was just a little love tap, just one, quick reminder for him to remember to tend to his business," Desormeaux said.

From that point to the end, Desormeaux "hand rode" the horse to the finish, nudging him around the shoulders and neck.

"I wasn't just a passenger," Desormeaux said, sounding as if he thought some might suggest he should get charged for cab fare.

Fusaichi Pegasus, who went off at 5-2 odds, was a length-and-a-half ahead of Aptitude, a 12-1 shot, at the end. Of all the horses who attracted the most attention before the race, he was the only one to perform. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas' three horses finished 12th, 15th and 17th, a certifiable disaster. Captain Steve, trained by Bob Baffert, ran eighth. The second betting choice, The Deputy, trained by Jenine Sahadi, was never in the running.

"It's a great feeling to come out of the second turn and into the stretch knowing you're on way the best horse," Desormeaux said.

They'd barely pulled up after the race when questions about winning a Triple Crown began flying. Having broken the 21-year jinx on Derby favorites, the 22-year jinx on Triple Crown winners would seem to be next.

"With luck and health, he's a horse that would be capable," Desormeaux said.

"I love challenges," said winning owner Fusao Sekiguchi, a Japanese venture capitalist who paid $4 million for the colt at a sale in 1998.

It was a Derby that could have been about history if Sahadi had become the first woman trainer to win, or about sentiment if front-running Hal's Hope had held on for 88-year-old trainer Hal Rose instead of fading to 16th.

But in the end, it's a Derby about greatness. A "super horse" anointed after the race instead of before it, for a change. A winner so superior he doesn't even need the whip down the stretch.

"He's the best I've ever been involved with at this [3-year-old] stage of the game," Desormeaux said.

"Very talented," said Drysdale, a man of few words.

So just forget all the pre-race concern about Fusaichi Pegasus' eccentricities, his tendency to balk at the starting gate, dump exercise riders and roll around on the track like a dog. He delivered on that front, too, yesterday, rearing up in the post parade and eliciting a gasp from the crowd. But it didn't matter.

Nothing mattered, in the end, except the sight of him blowing the field away and steaming for home, his jockey's whip nowhere in sight.

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