As America’s signature race, I find the Kentucky Derbies of 10, 20, 30, and even 40 years ago, on average, more memorable than any other single race. Therefore, the best editions of the run for the roses stand out as clearly for me as if they were contested only a few days ago. Of all the Kentucky Derbies in the past twenty years, there is one running that has risen head and shoulders above the rest, as the very best, in my opinion. The year was 1997, and a great three-year-old crop helped make for not only a splendid Kentucky Derby, but also a fantastic Preakness, a terrific Belmont Stakes, and many great memories beyond the three legs of the American Triple Crown.
Depth and quality was evident in abundance in this crop with horses like Silver Charm, Free House, Touch Gold, Awesome Again, Captain Bodgit, Concerto, Kona Gold, and Pulpit among the biggest stars foaled in 1994. Fittingly, the Triple Crown was a doozy. Silver Charm would prove to be the biggest star of those five weeks in the spring that are so important to our racing season. He won an absolute thriller in the Preakness over Free House, and was a game second in the Belmont Stakes to Touch Gold. But of course it was in the Derby, that he won the race of his lifetime. That afternoon in Louisville, Silver Charm struck the lead in mid-stretch and denied the rallying power of Captain Bodgit with courage not seen very often at the racetrack. It was a fantastic race between two outstanding horses, but the story of the 1997 Kentucky Derby was more than just the top two, lest we forget another pair of horses in that great Derby. I know I haven’t.
Pulpit and Free House arrived to Churchill Downs full of talent and speed, and on the first Saturday in May they would refuse to back down in their first ten-furlong test. The pair came together in the first furlong, and would remain in close contact throughout the first mile. With neither horse giving the other more than an inch, they likely sealed each other’s losing fate. After all, getting into an early speed duel is no way to win the Derby. Proving their class, the speedy pair would keep running to finish third and fourth, as Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit battled it out to the wire. The third place finisher, Free House was my personal favorite of the crop, and the leggy gray with the piercing eyes would go on to a fantastic four-year career. Happy with Free House’s effort in Louisville, I also recognized the talent of the horse he had gotten the best of in the Churchill Downs stretch. As the most inexperienced horse in that excellent Derby, Pulpit had an impossible task that day, considering he had the big gray breathing down his mane. Trained by Frank Brothers and ridden by Shane Sellers, finishing fourth was a fine performance for the horse adorning the familiar gold silks of Claiborne Farm. Unfortunately for Pulpit fans, the horse who had four wins in his first five races, including the Fountain of Youth and Blue Grass Stakes, came out of the race injured and would never run again. What was misfortune for race fans at the time became a boon to Claiborne Farm, as Pulpit would go on to become an important American sire. A gorgeous son of all-world sire, A.P Indy, Pulpit was a true homebred. Out of the talented Mr. Prospector mare, Preach, Pulpit was Claiborne through and through. Preach won the Frizette for Claiborne back in 1991 and Pulpit would be her best foal. Due to nagging physical issues, he did not make his racing debut until January of his sophomore season. The late start did not prevent him from dominating the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, only a month later, and in sparkling time. Unfortunately, we never got to see what the ultra-talent could have done as a mature race horse, but the Claiborne runner was as brilliant as anyone in the great foal crop of 1994, and that brilliance shown through in his offspring. Entering stud in 1998, Pulpit broke fast from the stallion starting gate, as his first crop included Essence of Dubai, winner of the Super and U.A.E Derbies. His second and third crops would include a handful of grade 1 winners in Purge, Sky Mesa, Stroll, and Tapit. He became a Breeders’ Cup winning sire when Corinthian rolled home in the inaugural Dirt Mile. Not only has he sired an eclectic group that could be fast or win at a distance, and run on dirt, turf, and synthetics, but he has also become known as a sire of sires, most notably with current top sire, Tapit. Already the sire of 11 grade 1 stakes winners, and 63 stakes winners overall, Pulpit continues to be well represented by classy offspring. In fact, at 18, the breeding career of Pulpit seemed to be better than ever as highlighted by the two outstanding juveniles that I've written a lot about this year, Power Broker and Sign. Sadly, his sudden death yesterday at the place where it all began for him, Claiborne Farm, once again cuts short what Pulpit may have become.
Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit currently stand in Japan and North Dakota respectively. Free House passed away way far too young at the age of ten. Now we say goodbye to Pulpit. Losing one like him is a tremendous blow to American racing and breeding. The gorgeous Claiborne bay will be sorely missed, but looking back at the great Kentucky Derby of 1997, I have nothing but fond memories.