LOUISVILLE, KY. — LOUISVILLE, KY.- Fusaichi Pegasus, easy winner of the Kentucky Derby, may scare off enough challengers that the Preakness field May 20 at Pimlico could be the smallest since 1979.
That is, if Fusaichi Pegasus runs in the Preakness.
After watching his colt register a seemingly effortless, 1 1/2 -length victory Saturday in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, trainer Neil Drysdale said yesterday the Preakness is "a possibility" for Fusaichi Pegasus.
"We have to see how he comes out of this race first before we go to the next step," Drysdale said outside his barn on the warm Louisville morning. "Literally, we'll just go one step at a time."
But if all goes well and the Derby winner feels good and trains sharply, Drysdale said, he will plan on flying Fusaichi Pegasus to Baltimore the Wednesday before the Preakness to continue his assault upon racing's most elusive prize, the Triple Crown.
Several horsemen in Kentucky as well as Maryland said Fusaichi Pegasus' victory was so overpowering that he is this country's strongest candidate in years to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
"I think we may have a Triple Crown winner in this barn," said Jenine Sahadi, trainer of The Deputy, who shared Barn 41 with Fusaichi Pegasus. "I think the Preakness will be the easiest of the three for him."
Sahadi said The Deputy, 14th in the Derby, will fly home to California, take time off and return to the races on turf. She said she still had no explanation for The Deputy's lackluster performance in the Derby.
Gary Stevens, assistant trainer for The Thoroughbred Corp., said Fusaichi Pegasus has a terrific chance of becoming racing's 11th Triple Crown winner.
"I've never seen a horse win the Derby with the ease that that horse did yesterday," said Stevens, a former jockey. "And Neil said he didn't have him 100 percent fit for the race. That's scary. I don't think we've seen the best of him yet."
Stevens also said Drysdale, as conservative a trainer as there is, would not think twice about withholding Fusaichi Pegasus from the Preakness.
"It would not surprise me one bit," Stevens said. "If there's any hiccup at all, I don't think Neil would take the chance."
The Thoroughbred Corp.'s Anees, 13th in the Derby, will return to California for a vacation, Stevens said. Performing Magic, winner of the Derby Trial and a Preakness candidate before the Derby, will run in the Illinois Derby this Saturday at Sportsman's Park.
Explaining the switch from Preakness contender to the Illinois Derby, Stevens said: "The last thing we need to do is jump in the ring with him [Fusaichi Pegasus]."
Two Maryland trainers with promising 3-year-olds echoed that sentiment. Jimmy Murphy, trainer of Tim's Crossing, and Larry Murray, trainer of Pickupspeed, said they would enter their horses instead in the Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard.
"I sure don't want any part of the big horse," Murray said. "I don't think anybody's going to go in there [the Preakness] thinking they're going to beat him. It just might jerk the heart right out of a horse to run against him."
Assuming Fusaichi Pegasus competes in the Preakness, the connections of only five opponents seem intent upon challenging him - at least at this early date. If only six start in the Preakness, that would be the smallest field since four took on Spectacular Bid 21 years ago.
The five challengers aiming for the Preakness are Captain Steve (eighth in the Derby), High Yield (15th in the Derby), Hal's Hope (16th in the Derby), Red Bullet (second in the Wood Memorial Stakes) and Snuck In (second in the Arkansas Derby).
Bobby Frankel, trainer of Aptitude, the Derby runner-up, said he would skip the Preakness and prepare for the Belmont. John Kimmel, trainer of Wheelaway, fifth in the Derby, said he wouldn't rule out the Preakness, but the Belmont was far more likely.
Todd Pletcher, trainer of four Derby horses, said three of his were "outside possibilities" for the Preakness: More Than Ready, Trippi and Impeachment. Of those, he said, More Than Ready was most likely.
But even then, he said, "It's not economically rewarding to finish second, third or fourth in these Triple Crown races."
Simon Crisford, spokesman for Godolphin Racing, said its two Derby horses would not contest the Preakness. China Visit, sixth in the Derby, will return to Europe for mile races on turf, and Curule, seventh in the Derby, likely will join his stable mate, Chief Seattle, in the Belmont, Crisford said.
Mike Pegram, owner of Captain Steve, eighth in the Derby, said his colt would "probably dance the dance" in the Preakness.
"He was pretty impressive; he was real impressive," Pegram said of Fusaichi Pegasus. "The thing about this business, you've got to be willing to get beat. If you're not willing to reload and fire again, you'd better get out."