Wish for next superstar horse may come in fast, quirky pick

Racing world thinks Fusaichi Pegasus can be triple delight

May 20, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The horse whose name few Americans can pronounce could be racing's next superstar. But he carries an even greater burden: racing's savior.

Fusaichi Pegasus, the Kentucky Derby winner and overwhelming favorite in today's Preakness at Pimlico, has captured the imagination of the racing world with five straight overpowering victories. His 1 1/2 -length triumph in the Derby two weeks ago at Churchill Downs seemed so effortless that many in the sport have prematurely anointed him its next superstar.

Now, those in the racing world hope that Fusaichi (pronounced fu-sah-EE-chee) Pegasus captures the imagination of the broader sporting world, perhaps even the public at large. Coupled with the mild resurgence of horse racing, the emergence of a Secretariat-type presence could bring the sport the widespread attention it desperately craves.

"Every sport thrives when a superstar comes along," said Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club. "I don't pay attention to golf, but I'll watch when Tiger Woods plays.

"At the same time, a sport without a superstar suffers. Look at the television ratings since Michael Jordan's retired [from the National Basketball Association]. They're off 15 to 20 percent."

Fusaichi Pegasus has won only the first jewel of the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby), but he exudes star quality. He's expensive, fast and beautiful. He's also a character.

"I really don't think racing fans have been this excited about a horse since Secretariat," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "He's a package you don't get very often."

Secretariat won the Derby, the Preakness and New York's Belmont Stakes in 1973, after 25 years without a Triple Crown winner. And not since 1978, when Affirmed won, has a horse managed the feat.

"That's why people are so hopeful he [Fusaichi Pegasus] turns out to be the real thing and wins the Triple Crown. ... He'd be the most publicized Triple Crown winner in history just because there's so much media coverage today," said Capps.

Fusaichi Pegasus sports a price tag of $4 million. That's what his owner, Japanese businessman Fusao Sekiguchi, paid for him as a yearling at the 1998 Keeneland July sale, the world's premier auction of thoroughbreds.

Regally bred and nearly flawless on the racetrack, the 3-year-old colt is worth far more now. Bob Baffert, the California trainer who nearly won the Triple Crown with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, said he'd estimate Fusaichi Pegasus' worth at more than $50 million.

But Fusaichi Pegasus' most alluring trait is his quirkiness.

Before the Wood Memorial Stakes in New York, his final race before the Kentucky Derby, he stopped on the track and refused to budge. He delayed the start for several minutes.

After the race-another easy victory- he froze on the track again, delaying the winner's circle celebration.

In Louisville, as he prepared for the Kentucky Derby, he stunned onlookers with his antics while training in the morning. He leaped and jumped and bucked like a bronco. Once, he reared up on his hind legs, lost his balance, dumped his rider and crumpled to the ground.

He wasn't injured, but he further stamped himself as a master of the unpredictable. That quality only enhances his appeal. You never know what you'll see when you tune in for his races or watch them in person.

"He's a character, and you've just got to go along with it," said his trainer, Neil Drysdale, a native of England recently elected to horse racing's Hall of Fame.

Such a quirky, speedy, glitzy horse, say those involved with the sport, is just what racing needs to attract new fans.

Founded two years ago as racing's "league office," the National Thoroughbred Racing Association started that job by pulling together most segments of the industry, launching a national advertising campaign and securing more time on TV for horse racing.

How successful the efforts have been is subject to debate.

Capps, of the Maryland breeders' association, said he senses a greater awareness of the sport. De Francis agrees, but said: "I wouldn't call it a tidal wave."

On the other hand, the Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said He has seen little progress. He said horse racing is so complicated and intimidating that attracting new fans is difficult.

On top of that, he said, unless you're a gambler or involved with the horses, it's boring.

"Whenever I take coaching friends to the races,` said Lukas, a former basketball coach, "they say, 'Gol darn, where's the action?' It's like going to a football or basketball game and having eight- or 10-minute commercials after every three plays."

Baffert, trainer of the two Triple Crown near-misses, said he believes the sport has benefited from three straight Triple Crown near misses. In addition to his Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), Lukas' Charismatic (1999) won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but faltered on the brink of Triple Crown glory in the Belmont.

"I think those Triple Crown runs have really brought the sport to the forefront," Baffert said. "But what has to happen for it to grow is for the local tracks to make it enjoyable for first-time visitors. We can bring them in here, but the local tracks have to take care of them."

Many tracks including Maryland's are trying to enhance the experience by sprucing up facilities, adding entertainment or merging racing with casino gambling in the form of slot machines. But all agree that a flashy Triple Crown winner would help everyone.

But they don't just give away the trophy in these $1 million races. The horse must earn it. Only 11 have won the Triple Crown since Sir Barton captured the first in 1919.

And Fusaichi Pegasus is only one third of the way to greatness .

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