The great stallion came down with a case of the colic early one morning last June. When his veterinarians discovered inflammation in the membrane lining his abdomen, they recommended euthanasia.
Reluctantly, but knowing he had to do what was right, Claiborne Farm owner Seth Hancock ordered the death of Mr. Prospector, one of America's greatest thoroughbred sires."It was old age, pure and simple," Claiborne assistant farm manager Gus Koch said yesterday from Lexington, Ky. "He had a long life and he just wore out."
An undistinguished racehorse who became a legendary stallion, Mr. Prospector was 29, the sire of 1,091 foals, 671 winners and 169 stakes winners. His offspring had won almost every major event in American racing, with one exception.
The Kentucky Derby.
Eleven months later, that blank on his record was filled when Fusaichi Pegasus crossed the finish line as the winner at Churchill Downs.
"We were very excited here at the farm," Koch said. "It was important for Mr. Prospector. His [sons and daughters] have done so much, but [Fusaichi Pegasus] could be his best horse. We don't know yet. There was obviously a lot of gas left in his tank at the end. It was wonderful to watch, especially for us."
For anyone who believes in racing fate and wants to see a Triple Crown winner, the story of the sire of "Fu-Peg" is a powerful omen.
Foaled in 1970, Mr. Prospector won seven of 14 starts in 1973 and 1974, earning $112,171. Only two of his seven wins were in stakes races. Known primarily for his speed, he wasn't regarded as a candidate for greatness as a sire.
"Basically, he came from nowhere," Koch said.
But breeding is an unpredictable, imperfect science, and Mr. Prospector quickly earned the kind of starry reputation he never had on the track. By the early '80s, he was the darling of the industry, commanding top stud fees and siring expensive yearlings, productive broodmares and winning runners.
His only shortcoming, according to many bloodstock experts, was his tendency to infuse his offspring with speed more than stamina, leaving them less able to, say, run a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May of their 3-year-old year.
That myth was dealt a blow when one of his sons, Conquistador Cielo, won the Belmont in 1982, and another, Seeking the Gold, won the Breeders' Cup Classic in 1988. In between, Tank's Prospect won the 1985 Preakness.
Still, the Kentucky Derby came and went every year without Mr. Prospector fathering the winner, and his reputation as a speed sire endured.
He almost got his Derby win in 1988, but Forty Niner lost by a nose after a gallant finishing kick. Then, in a bizarre turn of events, two of his grandsons and two of his great-grandsons up and won the Derby in the '90s. It was almost as if his time had passed.
There was no doubting Mr. Prospector's continued eminence - every year from 1992-99, his offspring sold for a higher average as yearlings than any other stallion - but it seemed his sons and even his grandsons were better at the ultimate test of siring Derby horses.
Now, however, less than a year after his death, there's Fusaichi Pegasus, a brilliant colt seemingly capable of defining Mr. Prospector, much as Secretariat and Citation defined two of the century's top stallions, Bold Ruler and Bull Lea.
"Fu-Peg" was foaled in 1997 by a mare named Angel Fever who was bred four years in a row (1995-98) to Mr. Prospector, with varying results.
"I had his full sister, a filly named Blissful," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "I didn't think she could run more than a mile."
A full brother, a colt that sold for $1 million and was sent to Ireland, died this year as a 2-year-old.
"Fu-Peg" has been different, a star from the beginning. Nicknamed Superman as a youngster for his undeniably good looks, he sold for $4 million as a yearling and, after getting a relatively late start, has shown uncommon greatness on the track.
The similarities between his relationship to Mr. Prospector and Secretariat's relationship to his father, Bold Ruler, are enough to send chills down your spine.
Like Mr. Prospector, Bold Ruler was a champion stallion who died (in 1971) without a Derby win on his record. Two years later, Secretariat not only won the Derby, but all three Triple Crown races.
A Triple Crown win for Fusaichi Pegasus 27 years later would represent an eerie encore of that piece of racing lore.
"We're around these horses every day for years and years, and there's a real sense of loss when they die," Koch said. "You know it's coming as they get older, but when a Mr. Prospector dies, it's like it happens to someone in the family. But once it does happens, you just hope their greatness can endure in some way."
For Mr. Prospector's place in history, that hope lies in the powerful stride of the Derby winner he finally fathered, at last, near the end of his remarkable life.