Pyro, winning the Risen Star (gr.III)<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Pyro, winning the Risen Star (gr.III)
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Alexander Barkoff

Ky Derby Trail: Is Pyro Really Too Slow?

Despite being ranked No. 1 or 2 on just about every Derby poll, Pyro, for some reason, has been branded by many a slow horse and simply the best of a bad lot. Yes, the pace in his two starts this year has been slow, and his final times have not exactly set the Fair Grounds teletimer aflame, but is this horse really as slow as many of the experts say he is?

His Beyer numbers have been called “modest.” His speed figures have been termed “slow.” One line in a column referred to “Pyro’s two slow victories at Fair Grounds.” One pollster, who had him ranked No. 1 all year, dropped him to No. 2 in a week in which he didn’t even run, nor did the horse who replaced him atop the list. The pollster, upon second thought, had felt that perhaps the colt’s accomplishments were an “illusion,” and pointed out that he was a faster horse last year.

The odd part is that Pyro was 1-for-4 last year, losing three times to War Pass, and is 2-for-2 this year, winning both his starts by daylight.

On the Beyers, Pyro ran a 105 in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), a number that is only a few points below many Derby-winning figures. This year, he is slowly heading back to that number, running a 90 and a 95. Many people feel that 95 is still too low for a top Derby contender, and while that may be true on Derby Day, Pyro has shown he can run much faster, and no other 3-year-old has run higher than a 99 in two-turn stakes competition this year. So if Pyro’s Beyers are slow, whose are fast?  Sierra Sunset (99), who is off the Derby trail, Cool Coal Man (98), Visionaire (98), Elysium Fields (97), Denis of Cork (96), and Nikki’sgoldensteed (96) are not exactly tearing up the track, and none of these have a triple-digit Beyer to fall back on, as Pyro does. Who wants their horse to tear up the track in February and March anyway?

On Thoro-Graph, Pyro ran a “negative-1” in the BC Juvenile. The only horse to run that fast this year going two turns is allowance winner Hey Byrn. The fastest two-turn stakes horses have been Denis of Cork with a “1/4”, Elysium Fields and Big Brown with a “1,” and Sierra Sunset with a “1 1/2.” Well, Pyro, who clearly has not been honed for his top effort, has run a “3 1/2” followed by a “2.” So, even though he still has a lot more improvement left in him, he’s already right there with the fastest 3-year-olds.

“He’s doing almost identically what Carl Nafzger did with Street Sense,” said Thoro-Graph’s Jerry Brown. “Both horses ran well enough at two to win the Derby. It’s not a question of having them improve; it’s just a question of having them get back to their best race. Both these trainers have clearly taken a path where they’re not going to have the horse expend any extra energy before then, and in both cases they decided to run on Polytrack in their last start before the Derby. Nafzger already knew his horse didn’t love the surface, and Asmussen is smart and knows that all he has to do is basically get this horse back to where he was. He’s clearly thinking about getting the horse to run his best race on Derby Day and I think he’s doing everything right. At this point, I believe he’s the most likely winner of the Derby.

“Everybody gets excited about races in February, and Derbys are not won in February. I think a lot of trainers these days are essentially manufacturing patterns, whether it’s the influence of speed sheets or not. Todd Pletcher seems to think that way, and Asmussen clearly thinks that way. Whether or not they’re looking at our data or Ragozin’s, they’re thinking in terms of a pattern.”

Asmussen’s pattern appears to have Pyro improving speed-wise every race without making a huge leap too soon and then having to resort to what Denis of Cork’s connections were forced to do, which is skip a scheduled race to await a later race, all because the horse made a big jump from a “6 3/4” to a “1/4.”

Garrett Gomez’ agent Ron Anderson, who follows the Ragozin figures, still fears Pyro and believes he’s in a class by himself. “The Derby is his race to lose, for me,” he said. “I think Asmussen is making all the right moves with him. Horses don’t accelerate on the dirt like he did in the Risen Star (gr. III). That was breathtaking. When people tell me he didn’t beat anything I just walk away. I think he’s unbeatable. If he should draw a bad post and runs into four blind switches, and has everything go wrong, then he can get beat. But if he only runs into three blind switches he’s still gonna win. I just think he’s a better horse.”

Pyro has been called by an opposing owner “a physical monster,” and you don’t want a physical monster flexing his muscles and lifting his highest weight before the first Saturday in May. By prepping on Polytrack, often times a much slower surface than dirt, all Pyro has to do in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) is pair up that “2,” give or take a half a point, and that should set him up for his peak performance, returning to the dirt on May 3..

Yes, it all sounds so simple, but we’re just exploring another aspect of handicapping the Derby before the major stakes begin next Saturday with the Florida Derby (gr. I). That’s when the regular season commences and we start separating the men from the boys, as they face stiffer competition and larger, deeper fields. Pyro’s detractors could prove to be correct, but at this point, he really hasn’t done anything wrong and has far less question marks than any of the other Derby contenders.

Has the Cork already been popped?

The more one examines the last-minute decision to skip the Rebel Stakes with Denis of Cork to await the Wood Memorial three weeks later, the more it appears to be an act that defies all tradition. Yes, the times definitely are changing, and numbers and speed figures have superseded logic, common sense, and plain old horsemanship. We’re now in an era where owners rely more and more on advisors, who tend to over-analyze and over-scrutinize. We can’t say for certain that the decision is going to severely compromise the colt’s chances in the Derby. What we can say is that the decision puts a much heavier burden on the shoulders of Denis of Cork, who is going to have to single-handedly rewrite the book on Derby preparation. If he is unable to, you cannot go back and start over.

We know owner William K. Warren to be a classy guy who loves the sport, and we’re sure he believes he’s doing the right thing, and maybe he is. But now we learn that jockey Robby Albarado, who rode Denis of Cork to victory in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III), has elected to ride Country Star in a one-shot deal in the Ashland Stakes (gr. I) rather than ride a horse who is one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Can anyone recall such a move?

So, Denis of Cork loses the benefit of a valuable prep race and his rider in the span of one week. All of a sudden the firm rope the colt was using to scale racing’s highest mountain has started to unravel.

At this point, there is no right or wrong. How the colt does in the Derby will determine which one applies here. The only question that exists is, can Denis of Cork go into the Derby off only one race in 11 weeks and only four career starts and accomplish something that hasn’t been done in 90 years?

With his talent, maybe he can, but if he can’t then Warren and whoever is advising him will have to wonder what might have been had they left the natural order of things alone.

Adriano joins the Poly party

Although Saturday’s Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II) packed a purse of $500,000 and provided one lucky horse with a guaranteed starting berth in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), most everyone was aware before the race that it would likely result in more questions than answers, regardless of the outcome.

It wasn’t so much that it was run on Polytrack (remember Hard Spun and Street Sense last year), it was that the field was made up predominantly of horses who had excelled on synthetic surfaces or grass and had not fared nearly as well on dirt. The only graded stakes winner – on any surface – in the field of 12 was the dead-heat winner of the grade III Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs on dirt. The other stakes winners had scored victories in the Swynford Stakes and Ocala Breeders Sales Championship on Polytrack and the King Cugat on turf. So, this certainly didn’t look like a major thoroughfare on the road to the Derby.

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As it turned out, the Lane’s End Stakes was what it was -- a decent field that did not answer a single question regarding the Derby. The main question surrounded the impressive winner, Adriano, who has looked like a world beater on grass and Polytrack, but who was a major bust in his only appearance on dirt.

So, is this son of A.P. Indy a legitimate Derby contender or just a turf/Poltrack specialist? Who knows? That is the recurring theme of this year’s Kentucky Derby, as it will be in Derbys to come. Then you have the runner-up, Halo Najib, who was 2-for-2 on synthetic surfaces and 0-for-4 on dirt, and third-place finisher, Medjool, who has never seen a dirt track in life. The son of Derby winner Monarchos broke from post 12 and raced extremely wide every step of the way, suggesting big things to come.

But the winner was much the best, opening a clear lead on the turn and winning under wraps by 2 1/2 lengths with a final eighth in :12 2/5. Had this race been on dirt, he’d certainly make a huge leap up most everyone’s Derby lists. From a visual standpoint, he appears to be a horse who has the looks, the pedigree, and the action to be a serious Derby contender. Off the Lane’s End, it would be difficult to deny him a chance at the Derby, but they will be gambling heavily that his one dismal race on dirt was an aberration. There has been talk of running him in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II), but that won’t tell us any more than we already know.

The two other stakes over the weekend, the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway, won by Big Glen, and the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel, won by Double or Nothing, should have no impact at all on the Derby picture.

Court is back in session

The Fountain of Youth (gr. II) seems like ages ago, and one of the horses in the race seems to have faded a bit in our memory. That is Court Vision, who, believe it or not, was our early top-ranked Derby horse prior to his third-place finish at Gulfstream off a three-month layoff. Now, as live Derby horses seem harder and harder to find, the vision of Court Vision as a major Derby contender seems to be returning sharper and clearer.

After all, he did run third, coming from a dozen lengths back in last on a track that was favoring speed. And he did have to go seven-wide at the top of the stretch. And he did draw clear of the rest of the horses, finishing 2 1/4 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher. By the time he leveled off and got in gear, Cool Coal Man and Elysium Fields were long gone. But because of how little running he actually did, combined with his average speed ratings and the fact that he’ll have only two starts before the Derby, he desperately needs a hard race in the Wood Memorial (gr. I).

This horse has proven to be tough and tenacious, and a relentless stretch runner who can overcome adversity. He showed that in his victories in the Iroquois (gr. III) and Remsen (gr. II) when he somehow was able to run down Halo Najib and Atoned, respectively, after appearing totally beaten.

He has the breeding and the 2-year-old foundation, and trainer Bill Mott says he’s been more aggressive in his training and is improving steadily. When Anderson and Gomez decided to take the mount on Court Vision in the Wood Memorial rather than ride Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) the same day it brought Court Vision back into full focus.

So, why did they choose Court Vision? “He closed on a track that you can’t really be that far back on, it’s Bill Mott, he’s won at Aqueduct, he’s well seasoned, WinStar owns both horses, Colonel John has never run on dirt, and I think Kathy Walsh’s horse (Georgie Boy) is going be very tough in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I),” Anderson said. “It wasn’t an easy call, but I really like my horse.”

As for his race in the Fountain of Youth, Anderson said, “Garrett had it in his mind that if he let him run away from there early and he wound up going in the other direction at the end of the race, that would have been counter-productive for later on. He took probably a little more hold of him than he really wanted, because he hadn’t been out, but he put in a wicked run for a little while and then flattened out a bit like he needed the race. Billy thinks he’s coming on now, so that’s where I’m at.”

Don’t forget about Numaany

If next Saturday’s UAE Derby (UAE-II) is going to have any Derby implications it’s going to be with Godolphin’s Etched and Numaany or American invader Massive Drama. Etched, a brilliant 2-year-old in the States who was fourth in the UAE Two Thousand Guineas (UAU-III) in his 3-year-old debut, is bred to be a miler and must prove that he wants to go farther. The same applies to Massive Drama, who was given over to Dale Romans in Zayat Stable’s 3-year-old shake up earlier this year. And then we come to Numaany, who looks to be the one legitimate Kentucky Derby hopeful in this race – a horse who has the pedigree to run long and who looks to be coming around at the right time.

Many people remember Numaany for bolting in the stretch in a 1 1/8-mile maiden race at Aqueduct and somehow still winning by daylight in one of the most bizarre finishes you’ll ever see. Following an even fifth-place finish in the UAE Guineas at a distance shorter than his best, he stretched out to about 1 1/8 miles in the March 6 Mujahid Al Bastakiya and ran a terrific race to finish third, setting all the pace and battling hard the length of the stretch against two “older” horses from the Southern Hemisphere. Although he was in receipt of 13 pounds from the winner, Royal Vintage, who had finished second in the UAE Guineas, he did manage to improve seven lengths on the South African-bred. If he can lay off the pace, as he’s done in the past, and finish well in the UAE Derby, he could be an exciting addition to the Kentucky Derby picture. Running against all those tough Southern Hemisphere horses, he doesn’t have to win, just show enough improvement and be competitive again. If he should win or be right there, we’re looking at a “live” horse on Derby Day.

By A.P. Indy, out of the Nijinsky mare Munnaya, who in turn is out of an Alydar mare, Numaany certainly has the pedigree and is improving with each start. And more important, he’s a good deal more professional than he was last year. If he does make it to the starting gate on May 3 he would give Godolphin their best chance ever in the Run for the Roses.

If Etched should win the UAE Derby impressively, which he is capable of, then he would be their most serious Derby contender. But his pedigree is not nearly as strong at 10 furlongs as Numanny’s.

Derby Belles are ringing

Rick Porter, who had a ball on the Triple Crown trail last year with the indefatigable Hard Spun, has nominated his brilliant filly Eight Belles to the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) as an alternative to the Fantasy Stakes (gr. II). Porter also said he is seriously considering putting up the late nomination fee for the Triple Crown, due March 29. So, that certainly whets ones appetite, especially after Rags to Riches’ historic conquest in last year’s Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

There is no doubt that Eight Belles is an exceptional filly following her runaway victories in an allowance race and the Martha Washington Stakes, followed by her first graded stakes victory in the Honeybee Stakes (gr. III), which she won much easier than the margin would suggest, while defeating two top-class fillies in the previously undefeated Pure Clan and three-time stakes winner Kadira.

While Eight Belles certainly looks capable enough of giving the boys a tussle, it must be noted that she has not been farther than 1 1/16 miles, and if you’re a Beyer pundit, her figures have gone from a 100 to a 96 to a 91. But she did run the same time as the colts in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) the day before, while winning eased up in a common gallop. It also should be pointed out that she is by Unbridled's Song and is inbred to Mr. Prospector and three times to Raise a Native.

There are plenty of Unbridled’s Songs who have been tough, sound horses, such as Octave, but you always have to tread a little carefully when you’re so heavily loaded with Raise a Native and Mr. Prospector. As of now, Eight Belles, with eight starts at distances ranging from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, looks to be a brilliant and sound filly.

If the Derby is being seriously considered, one would think the Arkansas Derby would be the way to go rather than have her stretch out from another 1 1/16-mile race to 1 1/4 miles. Also, running in a big field against the boys would give her a taste of what she’d be facing on Derby Day. It’s just a question of how Porter and trainer Larry Jones feel about running her back in three weeks. Whatever their decision, Eight Belles will spice up either the Derby or the Oaks, and her future is limitless right now.

In other Derby news:

Elysium Fields (six furlongs in 1:12) and Big Brown (five furlongs in a bullet 1:00 2/5) both are sharp for Saturday’s Florida Derby (gr. I). Colonel John worked five furlongs in :59 3/5 for the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Also keeping sharp for the Santa Anita Derby was El Gato Malo, who drilled seven furlongs in 1:24 3/5, which should put a little more bottom into him. Denis of Cork continues to train well, breezing five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 at Fair Grounds.

Have there ever been three more intriguing and unusual horses in a grade I Derby prep than Peruvian superstar Tomcito and the spectacular, but untested, allowance winners Big Brown and Hey Byrn? With other intriguing unknowns in the field such as Face the Cat, the Florida Derby should provide plenty of fireworks.

Quote of the week: In a Q&A in the New York Post, famed basketball coach Rick Pitino, who campaigned Kentucky Derby starter A P Valentine, was asked: What would it mean to have one of your horses win a Kentucky Derby? Pitino’s answer: “It wouldn’t be that big a deal to me. It’s just a hobby, it’s a fun thing.”