For the most fleeting of moments last Saturday, as the field of 19 horses hit the final turn for home, jockey Alex Solis looked down the 440 yards of homestretch dirt and saw his most fervent dreams coming true. His mount, a dark bay colt named Aptitude, had grabbed the bit and was moving powerfully, less than four diminishing lengths off the lead. He sensed that this Kentucky Derby was his to win. "It looked heavenly," Solis said. "My horse was running so easily."
Then, in a trice, Solis glanced ahead and to his right and saw jockey Kent Desormeaux swinging his mount, Fusaichi Pegasus, outside a wall of horses on the bend and sitting almost motionless on his back as the colt surged forward. "I saw Kent just galloping along in front of me and I said, 'Oh, s—-!' " said Solis, who had finished a close second in 1997 and '98 but had not won the Derby in his nine previous starts.
Solis knew instantly that he was in trouble. Desormeaux had ridden Pegasus with bold confidence from the outset, scooting along the rail inside heavy traffic, and now Desormeaux was angling him seven horses wide. The colt, his neck bowed, swept boldly for home in long, effortless strides. Desormeaux waited for Pegasus to straighten out and switch leads before launching his rush from the 3/16 pole. Here the jockey reached for a shorter hold, a signal for the horse to go, and then he made a kissing sound with his lips. "He exploded," Desormeaux said. "I was awestruck. I felt like I could fly. I felt like I had wings."
This was the moment that everyone in racing had been waiting for at Churchill Downs, the final 300 yards of the 10-furlong classic and the answer to the defining question of the Triple Crown season: How good is Fusaichi Pegasus? No one had doubted his potential. In fact, a small fortune had been gambled on it in July '98, at the Keeneland yearling sale, when his glowing physical presence and pedigree forced a spirited bidding war between a ponytailed Japanese venture capitalist in engineering, Fusao Sekiguchi, and an American-English-Irish syndicate. The bidding ended only after Sekiguchi offered $4 million, topping the syndicate's last bid of $3.9 million. The next day one member of the syndicate, Satish Sanan, called up Arthur Hancock, a cobreeder of the colt, and bellowed, "Arthur, I wanted that damn horse!"
"Why the hell did you stop bidding?" Hancock asked.
"I wanted to go higher, but my partners pulled up," said Sanan.
Indeed, the underbidders surrendered only when it appeared that Sekiguchi would stop at nothing. They were right. "I had a strong feeling about that horse when I first saw him," Sekiguchi said through an interpreter. "I had to have him. I had no limits on how much I would spend." Nor was there any self-restraint in what Sekiguchi decided to call him. Fusaichi is a blend of the owner's first name and the Japanese word ichi, which means "number one."
Since Pegasus cruised to a deceptively close, three-quarter-length victory over The Deputy in the March 19 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, no other 3-year-old stirred the hopes of the racing world as did this muscular colt with the model's head and the linebacker's shoulders. Four weeks later his mystique grew when he pounded a strong field in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, winning by nearly five lengths. He was evoking memories of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, the Triple Crown rivals of '89, and some heretical observers even saw in him the dappled shades of Spectacular Bid, the Derby and Preakness champion of 1979.
For all this summoning of exalted ghosts, young Pegasus, an offspring of Mr. Prospector and the Danzig mare Angel Fever, had his doubters. He did not break his maiden until Jan. 2, and not since Proud Clarion in 1967 had a horse won the Derby without a victory as a 2-year-old. Coming off four straight wins, including the Wood, Pegasus would certainly be favored in the Derby, and no favorite had won it since Spectacular Bid. Most worrisome, though, was the colt's reputation as something of a head case. He balked in the post parade at the Wood, refusing to approach the gate and delaying the start by three minutes. Then he raised every eyebrow in River City on the morning of April 27 when, as he was walking off the track, he reared up, dumped his exercise rider, lost his balance and tipped over backward, landing on his side.
So his trainer, Neil Drysdale, spent much of last week deflecting questions about his charge's mental state. "He's a very playful and spirited horse," Drysdale insisted. "He's very curious. He likes to look around."