01/17/2002 1:00AM

A shooting star may shine again


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - He was a big, beautiful bay colt who dazzled with his speed and stamina. He created a buzz in south Florida that hadn't been felt regarding a 3-year-old in some time and inspired his own daily column in Daily Racing Form called Pulpit Watch.

It has been five years since Pulpit-mania swept Gulfstream Park and south Florida. With his first crop now 3-year-olds - including *, who is entered in Saturday's $100,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park - and fostering Triple Crown aspirations in the heads of their connections memories of Pulpit's brief but brilliant career come streaking back.

"He was by far the most brilliant and best horse I ever trained," said Frank Brothers, who trained Pulpit for Claiborne Farm. "And the thing that made him good was he had an impeccable pedigree, he was as grand-looking a horse as there was, and he had speed and could carry it."

Typical 2-year-old problems kept Pulpit away from the races as a juvenile, so he did not debut until Jan. 11, 1997. Breaking from post 8 in an 11-horse field going seven furlongs, Pulpit galloped to a front-running, 7 1/2-length victory. He covered the distance in a swift 1:21.80 and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 107.

"He was probably the most impressive first-time starter I've ever seen," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who sent out Colonel Bradley to a fourth-place finish that day and who trains Nokoma. "He was spectacular that day."

Pletcher likened Pulpit to the 2000 Kentucky Derby winner, Monarchos, "the difference being Monarchos had two starts as a 2-year-old and this horse had not started. To make that progression from maiden ranks and to get to the Derby was very difficult."

In an effort to make the Derby, Brothers had to put Pulpit on an accelerated program. On Feb. 8, Pulpit won a preliminary allowance race by 6 3/4 lengths, upstaging a Donn Handicap in which Formal Gold upset Skip Away. Two weeks later, Pulpit was center stage, winning the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth. It was his third start in six weeks.

"I don't know that it had never been done, but I guarantee you it had probably been a while since it had been done," Brothers said of a 3-year-old winning the Fountain of Youth six weeks after he debuted. "Ultimately, it caught up to him in the Florida Derby."

Pulpit was sent off the 2-5 favorite in the Florida Derby. Pulpit was crowded at the break and raced in fourth position early. He moved within one-half length of the lead in midstretch but was outfinished by Captain Bodgit and finished second.

Pulpit redeemed himself with a demonstrative victory in the Blue Grass Stakes, earning him the role of 2-1 morning-line favorite in the Kentucky Derby. By post time Derby Day, Pulpit was sent off the fourth choice at 5-1. Pulpit dueled for the lead in the Derby, and for seven furlongs, Brothers liked what he saw.

But when Shane Sellers asked Pulpit to make his move at the three-eighths pole he was stuck in neutral and checked in fourth.

"I thought he got a very easy pace, I thought he had a helluva chance down the backside," Brothers said. "At the three-eighths pole he changed leads and he didn't pick it up a notch, I knew something was wrong. I'm not saying he was going to win the Derby, but when he didn't pick it up I knew something was up."

It turned out that Pulpit had sustained a career-ending knee injury. And as meteoric as it rose, Pulpit-mania was finished.

Now it's up to his progeny to carry on the Pulpit legacy. There are many in this first crop with the credentials to do just that.

The most accomplished son of Pulpit is Essence of Dubai, who won the Grade 2 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita last fall. After finishing 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he was sent to Dubai, where his connections will judge if he is Derby material or not.

Based on his strong second-place finish in the Grade 2 Remsen, Nokoma figures to be the first or second betting choice in Saturday's Holy Bull, a prep for the Fountain of Youth. Nokoma won his maiden in his second start in front-running fashion. In the Remsen, he made his move from off the pace and was clipped from behind in deep stretch by Silent Fred. In finishing second to Saarland, Nokoma was fortunate not to suffer a serious injury.

"He had a good trip experience-wise being in behind horses, he took the dirt well, and split horses at the top of the stretch," Pletcher said. "He was much more professional in his third start than he was his first start."

Though he entered Nokoma in the Holy Bull, Pletcher is not definite he will run. He may hold the horse out for an allowance race in hopes of not taxing the horse too much before the bigger 3-year-old races.

Clergy and Robe are two sons of Pulpit that Brothers will give a chance to prove they belong in the Derby.

Trainer Nick Zito said the most talented 3-year-old in his barn is Father Steve, a son of Pulpit who bucked shins after winning his maiden and is only iffy to make the Derby.

Zito said he would put Pulpit in the class of Unbridled's Song and A P Valentine, two of the best horses he has ever trained. "Sheer brilliance, raw ability, and natural talent," Zito said.

Pulpit, hopefully, has passed those traits on.


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