By post time for last Saturday's $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, the hype surrounding Pulpit had reached proportions that would have made even a televangelist blush. Earlier in the meet at the Hallandale, Fla., track, the precocious 3-year-old colt had won his first two career starts by a combined total of 14¼ lengths, in times so fast that the track clockers were doing double takes at their stopwatches. In Las Vegas most of the Kentucky Derby future books were pounded so heavily with Pulpit money that he became the early favorite—never mind that no horse unraced as a 2-year-old has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882. "I hope they're right," said a bemused Frank Brothers, who trains the colt for Claiborne Farm, "but he still has a lot to prove."
The crowd of 19,789, largest to attend the race since Spectacular Bid won it 18 years ago, included more than a few skeptics. By day's end, however, they were hard to find. For the first time Pulpit ran against stakes winners, failed to take the early lead, got stung in the face by dirt clods thrown by the leaders' hooves and had his glistening bay flanks lashed by jockey Shane Sellers' whip. No matter. He came rolling from three lengths off the pace to surge to the lead at the top of the stretch and galloped to a length-and-a-half victory over 32-1 shot Blazing Sword.
Pulpit's time, a sizzling 1:41[4/5] for the 1[1/16] miles, was the fastest for the distance at Gulfstream this year. It was as if a high school kid who had run in only two track meets in his life got thrown into the Olympic trials—and won so convincingly that he became the gold medal favorite. "God, he's awesome," said veteran horseman Cot Campbell, whose Dogwood Stable owns the fifth-place Jack Flash. "It's unbelievable that this horse could be ready to do those things. God knows what he'll do next time."
The decision by Brothers and Claiborne president Seth Hancock to run Pulpit in the Fountain of Youth at all was a huge gamble. And it drew attention to a budding mystery that already surrounds the colt. After Pulpit's first win, on Jan. 11, Hancock told Washington Post turf writer Andrew Beyer that the horse didn't start as a 2-year-old partly because of a hind leg fracture suffered in February 1996 during a workout at a training center in South Carolina. Last week Brothers resolutely refused to confirm that. There was "an injury," he said, but nothing that required surgery. "All I'm going to say," Brothers said, "is that he didn't race because of normal growing pains." Hancock added to the enigma by declining to address the question all week.
What is known is that all last year Hancock and Brothers treated Pulpit as if he were a rare and fragile piece of porcelain, which in a sense he is. He's a homebred son of A.P. Indy, the 1992 Horse of the Year, and the first foal out of the Mr. Prospector mare Preach, a Grade I stakes winner. Sprinkled through his pedigree are some of the sport's most revered names: Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Honest Pleasure, among others. A natural, right? "You never know," Brothers says. "There's a line used a lot in picking horses: Mrs. Mays had [11 kids], but only one Willie."
Thoroughbred racing, which has watched its fan base, its newspaper space and its TV and radio time shrink relentlessly for years, could certainly use an equine Willie Mays. If Pulpit can storm the Florida Derby on March 15 and the Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 12—his current schedule—he will arrive at Churchill Downs as the most ballyhooed Derby favorite since Spectacular Bid, giving the sport the sort of glamour horse it desperately needs and adding luster to Claiborne, already the most revered name in Kentucky's $1.2 billion a year thoroughbred industry.
Those are big ifs. But even grizzled horsemen were impressed with the way Pulpit, after only two starts and two weeks' rest, dominated a field that included such relatively seasoned young stars as Acceptable, a strong runner-up to Boston Harbor in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile; Arthur L. and Confide, a couple of Florida colts with withering speed; and California ship-in Wrightwood. The day before the race, Nick Zito, who trains Acceptable for George Steinbrenner, spoke for the majority when he said of Pulpit, "I was impressed with his first race and more impressed with his second—but now he's got to show me." He did.
Although the nervous Pulpit was lathered with sweat before the race and had to be taken out of the post parade, he was ready for business by the time the starting gate sprang open. True to their form, Arthur L. and Confide gunned to the early lead. But instead of foolishly chasing them, Sellers tucked Pulpit in on the rail, three to four lengths off the pace, and bided his time. At the turn for home, Sellers asked the colt to get serious. Swinging three wide, Pulpit glided quickly to the lead, Blazing Sword taking chase behind him. With Sellers first shaking his whip at the colt and then striking him repeatedly approaching the eighth pole, Pulpit drew away to victory.
After Sellers guided the weary Pulpit back to the winner's circle and dismounted, Brothers charged up and gave the jockey a big kiss on the cheek. Sellers laughed. "You were going to be a hero or a butthead, buddy," Sellers said. "But you look pretty good right now."
Ah, but let's not get carried away quite yet. Ron McAnally has a formidable 3-year-old named Mud Route prepping in California for the San Rafael Stakes on March 2, and a slew of other accomplished horsemen also lie in wait. D. Wayne Lukas, who has won seven of the last eight Triple Crown races, comes to mind, as do Zito, Charlie Whittingham and Bob Baffert. None of them are about to E-mail Churchill Downs suggesting that the Kentucky Derby trophy be turned over to Pulpit.