NEW YORK -- Scaling a mountain of expectation, Fusaichi Pegasus nearly reached the summit yesterday in the $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct here in Queens.
The $4 million colt devoured a power-packed field of 12 3-year-olds in this stern test along the road to the country's premier series of races, the Triple Crown. After his 4 1/4-length triumph in the mud under overcast skies, Fusaichi Pegasus can reach the mountaintop with a victory in three weeks in the Kentucky Derby. He will be the solid favorite.
"This was the perfect scenario,' said Neil Drysdale, his trainer. "The whole thing unfolded like a little fairy story."
A son of the late, great stallion Mr. Prospector, the magnificent Fusaichi Pegasus surmounted the race obstacles a young horse must as he prepares for the demanding Kentucky Derby.
He flashed speed out of the gate and gained favorable position into the turn. He galloped patiently behind horses down the backstretch. He retained his graceful stride despite wet sand slapping him in the face. He displayed the courage to run between horses. And he unleashed powerful acceleration down the homestretch, passing the two front-runners, Country Only and Red Bullet, and then leaving them in his wake.
"I think today was a perfect primer for the first Saturday in May," his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, said. "He's got a world of talent. The only question now is whether he can get a mile and a quarter [the Derby distance]. I'm very confident that he can."
Actually, the only question may be whether Fusaichi Pegasus has the mind of a Kentucky Derby winner.
Yesterday, as the rest of the field waited behind the starting gate, Fusaichi Pegasus stopped repeatedly on the track, looking around as any tourist would on his first visit to the Big Apple. Then, after winning the race and slowing to a stop around the first turn, he balked initially at coming back to the winner's circle. He stood with ears pricked and eyes wide.
Drysdale, the respected English trainer, said Fusaichi Pegasus' deportment will not be a problem at the Derby, despite its multitude of goings-on to gawk at. Drysdale said the colt is not nervous or excitable.
"He loves to stare at things," Drysdale said. "He's got a bit of a mind of his own. It's not like he gets upset. When he decides he wants to do things, that's when he does them."
Desormeaux described Fusaichi Pegasus' attitude this way: "He's a rebel, a rebel with a cause."
Based on the colt's 3-for-4 record in California, bettors sent Fusaichi Pegasus off at the 4-5 favorite. After completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 47.92 seconds on a wet track rated "good," he paid $3.80 to win.
The previously undefeated Red Bullet (3-1 odds) finished second, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of the 5-1 Aptitude, who came flying at the end. The exacta returned $12.40, the trifecta $35.20.
Completing the order of finish were Country Only, Appearing Now, Postponed, Cat's At Home. Painted Pistol, Exchange Rate, Fight for Ally, Connect and Traditionally.
Scotty Schulhofer, trainer of Postponed (owned by part-time Maryland residents Jinny Vance and Laddie Dance), said the Summer Squall colt would be pointed for the Belmont, not the Kentucky Derby.
Joe Orseno, trainer of Red Bullet, who entered the Wood with three victories in three attempts, was delighted with his colt and not upset at the termination of his win streak.
"We want to win the race three weeks from now," he said.
That, of course, would be the Derby, which now has a clear favorite in Fusaichi Pegasus. But that could be a mixed blessing. No Derby favorite has won since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
Drysdale smiled and said: "Maybe we shouldn't mention that."
NOTES: In the third at Aqueduct, a $60,000 allowance race at 1 1/8 miles, Lemon Drop Kid prepped for the Pimlico Special by finishing in a dead heat with the 17-1 End of the Road.
The overwhelming favorite at 3-5, Lemon Drop Kid gained the lead at the head of the stretch, and then barely held on as End of the Road, ridden by Edgar Prado, charged relentlessly on the outside. Lemon Drop Kid is owned by Vance and Dance, who also own Postponed.
Schulhofer, trainer of Lemon Drop Kid, was angry at jockey Jose Santos for allowing the colt to gain the lead too soon. Schulhofer said the colt's habit then is to wait on other horses. Santos suggested that Lemon Drop Kid wear blinkers.
"He doesn't need blinkers," Schulhofer said, measuring every word. "He just needs you to sit there and wait a little longer."