His bloodlines read like a thoroughbred who's who - Danzig, Native Dancer, Nashua, Northern Dancer, Halo - all the way back to Count Fleet. He was such an impressive-looking foal that his co-breeder, Arthur Hancock 3d of Stone Farm, nicknamed him Superman. He was so impressive-looking in the 1998 Keeneland yearling auction, he brought a sale-topping price of $4 million.
Despite his Japanese name and Japanese owner, the 3-year-old son of the late, great Mr. Prospector is as American as a mint julep. He was bred in Kentucky, broken in Florida, trained in California, and scored his biggest triumph two weeks ago in New York, winning the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 15 in near-record time on a muddy track.
Today he is in Louisville with more than 20 other Derby candidates, training beneath the famous twin spires of Churchill Downs under the direction of Neil Drysdale, a veteran British-born, California-based trainer who has never saddled a horse in America's most famous horse race.
"He takes your breath away," said Drysdale, noting his stately manner, raw ability, and fascination with everything around him.
If there is a concern about the colt, it is that fascination. During the post parade for the Wood Memorial, the colt stopped suddenly to check out the cars and trucks in a nearby parking lot. Later he stopped again to take in the Aqueduct crowd, ignoring the urging of jockey Kent Desormeaux.
But when post time arrived, he stepped quickly into the gate and thundered to a 4 1/2-length victory over previously undefeated Red Bullet and 11 others at 1 1/8 miles. His time, 1 minute, 47.92 seconds, was less than a second off the track record despite the wet track.
Thursday as he was being led off the track at Churchill Downs, he reared on his back legs, tossed his exercise rider, lost his balance, and crashed to the track on his backside and rolled over. He was up immediately, apparently unhurt.
"Some mornings he's a perfect gentleman," Drysdale said, "and some mornings he's feeling so good he doesn't know what to do with himself."
The trainer expects no behavior problems when the colt prances and dances onto the track Saturday at about 5:30 (Channel 6) before a roaring crowd of about 140,000 and strains of "My Old Kentucky Home." And Drysdale insists he is not concerned about the so-called favorite's jinx. No favorite has won the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
The colt is owned by Fusao Sekiguchi, a Japanese businessman who named him after winning the bidding war over Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, among others, at the Keeneland auction. Sekiguchi added the letters "ichi" (meaning one) to his first name and added Pegasus, the mythical winged horse that sprang from the body of Medusa at the time of her death.
Drysdale, whose strongest previous Derby prospect, AP Indy, was scratched on the morning of the race in 1992, will have a second horse in the race Saturday in War Chant, the San Rafael winner and Santa Anita Derby runner-up.
But the strongest competition for Fusaichi Pegasus probably will come from The Deputy, an Irish-bred horse who made his first five starts in England on the grass. He has four wins, two seconds and three thirds in nine starts and is trained by Jenine Sahadi, who is trying to become the first winning female trainer in the Derby. The Deputy, ridden by Hall of Fame member Chris McCarron, beat several Kentucky Derby horses in the Santa Anita Derby, including War Chant and last year's 2-year-old champion, Anees. His loss to Fusaichi Pegasus was by three-quarters of a length, but he gave up six pounds that day and hadn't raced in seven weeks.
And, as always, Lukas, a four-time Derby-winning trainer, will be a threat. Last year he won it with a second-string colt named Charismatic, a former claiming horse who went on to become horse of the year. He's back this year with Blue Grass Stakes winner High Yield, a $1 million colt bred by Brushwood Farm near Paoli. He may also enter maiden longshots named Commendable, Exchange Rate and True Confidence.
A former Lukas assistant, Todd Pletcher, is expected to run four horses Saturday, including undefeated Flamingo Stakes winner Trippi and Arkansas Derby winner Graeme Hall. His best chance may be More Than Ready, who was second by a head to High Yield in the Blue Grass and third in the Arkansas Derby.
Others expected to run in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby are Captain Steve, who was third in the Santa Anita Derby and is trained by Bob Baffert; Hal's Hope, the Florida Derby winner; Wheelaway, the Tampa Bay Derby winner; Aptitude, third in the Wood; Globalize, winner of the Spiral Stakes; and as many as three horses from the Godolphin Racing Stable of Dubai, including undefeated China Visit.
If more than 20 horses are entered, preference is given to nominees according to graded stakes earnings.
Jay Searcy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org