LOUISVILLE, KY. -- More than any other horse race, the Kentucky Derby offers intrigue, personal drama and enigma. And more than most Kentucky Derbies, the 126th renewal today at Churchill Downs offers them in exquisite abundance.
This Derby could produce the next super horse, its first winning female trainer or its oldest winning trainer. It will showcase the Derby's first black jockey in nearly eight decades and a second assault upon an American institution by Arab sheikhs.
But most of all, this Kentucky Derby offers the world a tremendous horse race.
"I think this is the best Derby I've ever seen," said Carl Nafzger, trainer of Unbridled, winner of the 1990 Derby and sire of two horses in this race. "This is just a beautiful Derby."
The race features FusaichiPegasus, the 3-year-old many believe could become the next great horse in America. It also showcases at least a dozen top runners who would look appropriately adorned draped in the winner's blanket of roses.
"The Derby is generally six or eight top horses who've qualified to be in the field," Nafzger said. "This year you've got six or eight quality horses and six more as legitimate as they can be. You've got 12 or 14 horses who can win this Derby."
Atop the list is Fusaichi Pegasus, the $4 million yearling whose name is a combination of his owner's first name and "ichi," Japanese for No.1. Fusao Sekiguchi, a Japanese businessman, plucked the Mr. Prospector colt from the 1998 July Keeneland yearling sale. Then he decided to keep the horse in this country to prepare for the spring classics.
Although no favorite has won the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979, Fusaichi Pegasus enters the race as the most deserving favorite in years. He is a massive and powerful creature with a bent toward curiosity and playfulness.
On the track in the morning he leaps and bucks like a bronco. Before and after his final Derby prep, the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, he froze on the track as he looked at things that piqued his interest, perhaps an ambulance, perhaps reporters spilling onto the track.
But during the race, and during the running of his four previous races, Fusaichi Pegasus displayed strength and speed rarely seen in a young horse still learning, developing and maturing. He lost his initial race in December by a neck, but he then reeled off four dominant victories, including a romp in the Wood with seemingly effortless ease.
The horse with perhaps the best chance of humbling the potential great one is The Deputy, an Irish-bred with uncommon ability, acceleration around turns and determination. Since spending his 2-year-old season on the turf in England, he has ventured to the United States and become an outstanding 3-year-old.
Should he prevail, his trainer, the California-based Jenine Sahadi, would become the first female trainer of a Derby winner. Nine have tried with 10 horses, and the closest one was another Californian, Shelley Riley. In 1992 her Casual Lies finished second, a length behind Lil E. Tee.
Sahadi has her backers but so, too, does Harold J. Rose, the trainer of Hal's Hope, one of the speedsters who will likely vie for the early Derby lead. Rose is 88, 12 years older than the oldest trainer to win the Derby. Charlie Whittingham was 76 when Sunday Silence triumphed in 1989.
For the second straight year the Derby includes invaders from the Middle East. The Dubai-based Godolphin Racing, the most successful racing operation in the world, has set its sites upon the Kentucky Derby, one of the few major races it hasn't won.
Last year, Godolphin's Worldly Manner finished seventh. This year, it will test the best in America with two more lightly raced horses, the undefeated China Visit and the long-shot Curule.
Marlon St. Julien, a 28-year-old Louisiana native with vast potential, will ride Curule. He will be the first black jockey to ride in the Derby, a race once dominated by black jockeys, since Henry King finished 10th in 1921 aboard Planet.
"I just want to be considered one of the best riders in the country, whether black, white, purple, blue or brown," St. Julien said.
Although seven trainers will saddle a Derby horse for the first time, the Derby would not be the Derby without D. Wayne Lukas saddling a multiple entry. Lukas will start three, including the remarkably consistent High Yield. This will be Lukas' 20th consecutive Derby.
He is one of the few not yet sold on Fusaichi Pegasus or the strength of this 19-horse field.
"I think it's deep, but I don't think it's as deep as some people think," Lukas said. "I think you've got five or six really darn good horses in there.
"I don't see any super horses. I don't see any Spectacular Bids or Seattle Slews in this field."
A former Lukas assistant, Todd Pletcher, is one of the trainers making his Derby debut. And Pletcher has done it in a Lukas-like way - with four horses, including 2-year-old sensation More Than Ready. The precocious youngster won his first five races but then fizzled in the fall.
Anees, trained by Alex Hassinger, Jr., stepped in at year's end with an overpowering performance in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and won the Eclipse award as North America's top juvenile.
Anees has yet to win this year. But Hassinger ranks the Unbridled colt among the elite 3-year-olds who have a chance to win the Derby - and to make this one of the most memorable Derbies in years.
"There are so many horses with bright futures in here," Hassinger said.
"I think next year people will look back on this race and say: 'Wow, that was a great Derby.'"