Pyro and jockey Shaun Bridgmohan after the Louisiana Derby (gr. II).<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Pyro and jockey Shaun Bridgmohan after the Louisiana Derby (gr. II).
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Skip Dickstein

Ky. Derby Trail: Py in the Sky

This is what makes Thoroughbred racing such a great sport. On Saturday, in one corner of the country, the mighty Pyro, whose name and powerful stretch kick conjure up images of fires and explosions, once again crushed his foes, winning the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) in grand style.

On the same day, in the opposite corner of the country, a humbly-bred colt who sold for meager $1,000 as a yearling in Northern California and was given the unusual, but well-intentioned name of Autism Awareness, mowed down his field to win the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Bay Meadows.

Pyro was given his name to signify an unstoppable force of power. Autism Awareness was given his name to raise awareness for the disorder that the owner’s 8-year-old son was born with. Pyro is trained by super trainer Steve Asmussen, who commands a 300-horse stable and who won 488 races last year for a .21 win percentage. Autism Awareness is trained by Genaro Vallejo, who won 13 races last year for a .07 win percentage. Pyro went off as the 4-5 favorite in the Louisiana Derby. Autism Awareness went of as the longest price in the El Camino Real Derby at odds of 62-1.

Pyro was sired by the top-class stallion Pulpit, who stands at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky for a fee of $80,000. Autism Awareness was sired by the obscure Tannersmyman, who stands at Woodbridge Farm in Oakdale, Cal. for a fee of $2,500. Pyro’s breeding rights have been sold to Darley. No such offer has been made by Darley for Autism Awareness’ breeding rights.

Six days before Pyro broke his maiden at Churchill Downs in his career debut last July, Autism Awareness finished eighth in his career debut at the Pleasanton fair. Pyro went on to finish second to 2-year-old champion War Pass in the grade I Champagne Stakes and Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Autism Awareness went on to be beaten at the Santa Rosa, Bay Meadows, and Fresno fairs, while racing twice for a claiming tag. Two weeks before Pyro inhaled his opponents in the Risen Star (gr. III) with one of the most spectacular stretch runs ever witnessed on the Derby trail, Autism Awareness was breaking his maiden at Golden Gate in his 13th career start.

But now, here they are together on the road to Churchill Downs, destined perhaps to cross paths on the first Saturday in May. If that happens, get the golden coach and glass slippers out of storage. Wipe the dust off the old slingshot.

Yep, this is what makes racing special – Cinderella getting another chance to dance with the prince; David getting another crack at Goliath. Will it happen with Autism Awareness and Pyro? Who knows? But it’s something that can happen, and that’s what separates racing from other sports.

OK, back to reality. Pyro showed in the Louisiana Derby that he is now the one to beat on May 3. One sensational performance raises the eyebrows, but two seals the deal, especially in a year when no one has stepped up to claim the role of Kentucky Derby favorite. Pyro did just that on Saturday. Instead of lagging back in the rear of the field off sloth-like fractions, as he did in the Risen Star, he showed a new dimension by sitting in fourth, some four lengths off another dawdling pace. Again trapped behind a wall of horses turning for home, Pyro and Shaun Bridgmohan this time sat chilly and bided their time, waiting for the inevitable hole to open. No more meandering all over the track looking for an opening. Bridgmohan knew that he could afford to wait, because once one did open, he’d be gone in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Well, one did open and Pyro was indeed gone, as the colt calmly shot through there as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He burst clear of the field in a flash and strolled home to win by three lengths. Once again, his closing fractions were strong, with a quarter in :23 4/5 and final sixteenth in :06 2/5.

If there is anything that Pyro’s future opponents can use to diminish his victory, it is the performances of the other top contenders. The horse that finished second, My Pal Charlie, was 60-1 and didn’t look like he was in the same class as Pyro. The main threats – Tale of Ekati, Majestic Warrior, and Blackberry Road – all came up empty in the stretch, despite the slow pace, while the consistent Unbridled Vicar never ran a step, indicating something might have happened to him early in the race. Tale of Ekati, who broke slowly and lost his position, and Majestic Warrior were on course to have only two Derby preps and neither could afford to throw in this kind of performance. Blackberry Road was closer to the pace than usual, and had a clean trip this time, so no apparent excuse. But he still should improve going longer; 1 1/16 miles is not his game. Yankee Bravo, making his dirt debut, ran well enough late to get third, which will keep him firmly entrenched on the Derby trail. Still lightly raced with only four starts, and with a big closing kick, he is not one to be taken lightly.

The smartest guy on Saturday was Team Valor International president Barry Irwin, who packed up Visionaire after his third-place finish in the Risen Star and fled town, getting as far away from Pyro as possible. He headed up north to New York, where Visionaire captured the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) with a powerful stretch run of his own, charging through a thick blanket of fog to just get up by a nose.

Irwin had no desire to pick a fight with Pyro again, and for good reason. “That horse is from a different planet,” he said shortly after the Risen Star. “He’s also a physical monster with a forearm like Sonny Liston.” For all those too young to remember the former heavyweight champion, just think of George Foreman and add a mean streak to him. Liston was the terror of the ring until one Cassius Clay got in his head and drove him nuts.

Don’t expect that to happen with Pyro, whose mental state has actually improved since last year, and he is now the consummate pro on the racetrack.

All that is left for him is to bide his time and wait for his white whale, also known as War Pass, to breach on May 3. Many people feel, at a mile and a quarter, Pyro will have better luck with his nemesis than Ahab had with his.

It must be noted that if Pyro should emerge victorious on the first Saturday in May he will be the fifth straight homebred to win the Kentucky Derby, following Smarty Jones, Giacomo, Barbaro, and Street Sense, which bodes well for the good old days when homebreds were the backbone of the sport. Be aware, however, that in both his victories this year, the 3-year-old fillies -- Indian Blessing in the Silverbulletday (gr. III) and Proud Spell in the Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II) -- ran faster. Those are top-class fillies, but that's a pattern you don't want to see repeated too often.

Getting back to Autism Awareness, he looked like a totally different horse from the one that opened a big lead and ran his field into the ground back on Jan. 21. Since then, he’s had two bullet works at Golden Gate, and in the El Camino Real, he took back to fourth and then got himself boxed in badly on the far turn. Waiting patiently, just as Pyro did, he finally found an opening after turning for home and took off, charging by the battling leaders, Nikki’sgoldensteed and Tres Borrachos, to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths in the respectable time of 1:43 for the 1 1/16 miles.

Fairy tales aside, Autism Awareness most likely has had his big moment on the Derby trail. But even if that’s true, it’s still a story that will be told numerous times in the weeks ahead. And if he should make it to Churchill Downs, following a $6,000 late nomination fee, you can bet the story of Autism Awareness and his cause will spread across the country in much the same manner as Afleet Alex and Alex’s Lemonade Stand in 2005. In that respect, $6,000 is pretty cheap.

Credit must be given to Nikki’sgoldensteed, who was under pressure every step of the way from Tres Borrachos, but kept on battling to the wire along the rail, never seeing the winner until he was well past him. He finally got the better of Tres Borrachos and pulled 1 1/2 lengths clear to finish second. This is a tough colt, who is both game and brilliant.

A vision in the fog

Well, a Visionaire to be more precise. As the horses in the Gotham emerged from the thick shroud that had enveloped the track, all one could see was the ghostly figure of the gray colt, Texas Wildcatter, well ahead of the others. Someone, somewhere was second, but no one had a clue who it was.

Then came a sole figure, still on his left lead, his tail tied because of the sealed sloppy track. One could faintly see the familiar green silks of Visionaire’s co-owner Team Valor International. The son of Grand Slam was well ahead of everyone else, but looked to have no chance of catching Texas Wildcatter. As the two horses became more visible, one could now clearly see Visionaire chopping into Texas Wildcatter’s lead with every stride, but the finish line was approaching fast. Texas Wildcatter began shortening stride, and Visionaire, under a hand ride by Jose Lezcano, nailed him right on the wire, winning by a nose.

Team Valor president Barry Irwin, who bought 51% of Visionaire following the colt’s impressive allowance victory at Gulfstream Jan. 4, was standing on the rail and had no idea if the rallying horse was his or not until he saw the “10” on the saddle towel.

“Between the time I figured out it was us and they crossed the wire couldn’t have been three seconds,” Irwin said. “I’ll tell you one thing, that’s the way to watch a race. There’s no sweating, no nerves; you just sit there like everyone else and you wait. And then here they are and either you did it or you didn’t.”

Visionaire had drawn post 10, which is not where you want to break from on the inner track at Aqueduct. Irwin knew his only chance was for Lezcano to drop back to last, tuck in, and let the colt return to the running style that enabled him to score back-to-back explosive victories. In the Risen Star, the pace was agonizingly slow, and breaking from the inside, Visionaire was forced to race closer to the pace than he liked, while stuck behind horses. Irwin’s only concern in the Gotham was that horses all day were winning from close up and well off the rail.

“If you weren’t up there on the lead or just off it, and rallying wide, you got nothing,” Irwin said. “So, for him to do what he did was pretty impressive. And he ran a”98” Beyer number, so I think we’re in a good spot. Now we can just kick back and point him for the (Toyota) Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). We have enough earnings to get in the Derby, so I want to run him where it’s going to help him the most for the Derby. By running him on Polytrack in the Blue Grass, he might not win it, but I think it’ll set him up for the race the best way. I believe Polytrack helps your horse get what he needs from a  cardiovascular standpoint without having to take the pounding.”

If there is one question mark surrounding Visionaire, it is his pedigree, which is kind of iffy for 1 1/4 miles, with sire Grand Slam and broodmare sire French Deputy. But there are several hard-knocking, two-turn Maryland stakes horses in his female family, and he does have the right running style to keep stretching out. Let’s call his pedigree borderline, so it may just come down to ability, of which he has plenty.

Second wave brings heavy ammo

Each year about this time, we wait for the second wave to hit the Derby trail, hoping to find a Monarchos or a Grindstone or a War Emblem – late developers who emerge on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, to become leading Derby contenders.

Just when many fans were becoming disillusioned with the run of mostly mundane Derby preps, in came the second wave, bringing two colts who rocked the Derby trail with performances so spectacular their names quickly were on everyone’s lips, despite neither having ever run in a stakes. Just like that, Big Brown and Hey Byrn were hot commodities. Three days after Hey Byrn’s stroll in the park, Big Brown, who hadn’t run since demolishing his foes by 11 1/4 lengths in a maiden turf race at Saratoga last summer, returned in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream that was taken off the turf and turned in a performance so awe-inspiring he quickly made Hey Byrn yesterday’s news.

By crushing his opponents by 12 3/4 lengths, winning with ridiculous ease, Big Brown earned a 104 Beyer figure and an impressive “3 1/2” on the Ragozin Sheets. What amazed everyone was the way he cruised along under a motionless Kent Desormeaux after six furlongs in 1:09 4/5, this following a second quarter in :22 2/5. He merely cantered home his final quarter to win eased up with his ears pricked in 1:35 3/5. Although Hey Byrn had won his race just as easily, his time for the 1 1/8 miles over a slow track was 1:52 3/5.

A majority interest in Big Brown had been purchased by IEAH Stables from original owner Paul Pompa following the colt’s debut for a price believed to be around $2 million. He was then turned over to Rick Dutrow, who had to battle through a couple of quarter cracks with Big Brown before being able to get him back to the races.

What amazed Dutrow most about Big Brown’s performance was that the colt had had only two breezes this year – a half in :48 on Feb. 24 and five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 on March 1. On the day of the race, Dutrow admitted to being “scared,” and kept thinking, “I gotta be out of my mind to do that to this horse.” His final work, in which he galloped out strong and came bouncing back on his toes, had convinced him he was ready, but now he was wondering if he was doing the right thing.

In a little over a minute and 35 seconds, everything changed. “Believe me, I wasn’t thinking about the Derby before the race,” Dutrow said. “Now, how can I stop it? He’s absolutely unstoppable right now.”

Dutrow did say, however, that the only thing that could prevent Big Brown from making the Derby is his feet, so he’s going to keep him at Gulfstream and run in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and “keep everything basic.” That would give Big Brown only three career starts before the Derby, an obstacle even Curlin couldn’t clear last year, nor could anyone else in the past 93 years. With Big Brown having debuted on grass, then sidelined for six months before resurfacing in another scheduled grass race, one has to wonder just how troublesome his feet are. As talented as he is, he’s still bucking the odds, having to overcome both soundness and experience issues.

So impressive were the victories by Big Brown and Hey Byrn, it is conceivable they will vie for favoritism, along with Elysium Fields, in the Florida Derby despite their lack of stakes experience.

What is unusual about both colts, other than their jaw-dropping victories, is the fact that both are by sprinting sires. Hey Byrn’s sire, Put it Back, a son of the speed-oriented Honour and Glory (sire of sprinters Battle Won and Keyed Entry) is best known for his sons Smokey Stover and In Summation – both confirmed sprinters. Big Brown’s sire, Boundary, who was a stakes-winning sprinter, has sired mostly sprinters and milers. So, what’s happening here? Is the breed so random nowadays that we have absolutely no idea any longer who the real Derby contenders are based on pedigree?

That means it’s time to pay much more attention to the dam. Hey Byrn’s maternal grandsires are Skip Trial and Storm Bird, so that is apparently where his stamina is coming from. Big Brown is inbred to Damascus and Round Table, as well as Northern Dancer, so there’s your stamina. Damascus has been known to inject speed into many of his sons, but his inbreeding in Big Brown’s case is through his daughters, which brings out his stamina.

The bottom line is that these two exciting colts do have question marks that won’t be erased until they face each other and a number of proven stakes horses in the Florida Derby.

In an interesting sidelight of these allowance races, Todd Pletcher decided to run his seven-furlong maiden winner Sleuse in a second level allowance race on March 2 instead of a first level allowance the day before and ran smack into Hey Byrn. Then, he entered his runaway maiden winner Crimson Comic in a one-mile allowance race on turf March 5, but listed him as ‘main track only.’ As a precaution, he also entered him in a first level allowance race on dirt at the same distance the following day. The grass race came off the turf and Pletcher decided to go with Crimson Cosmic in that spot and ran smack into Big Brown. It just goes to show you that on the Derby trail you never know behind which door the monsters are lurking.

In other Derby news:

In the Beyer beware department, when Gulfstream Park announced that Cool Coal Man’s final time in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) was 1:49 2/5, he was given a 98 Beyer figure. That time was changed soon after to 1:50, yet on the latest past performances, his Beyer is still 98. So, is Beyer using the old time, the new time, or Randy Moss’ private clocking? Whichever one he is using, there is no reason for the colt to earn the same figure based on two different times, three-fifths apart.

If there is a horse who may be able to give War Pass a tussle in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), it is Dogwood Stable's Atoned, who indicated his readiness by working five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 at Palm Beach Downs and galloping out a strong seven panels in 1:26 4/5 and pulling up a mile in 1:40. Judging from his works, he is ready to come back running and he already has an excellent foundation.

Delta Jackpot (gr. III) dead-heat winner Turf War, who turned in a dismal effort in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) Feb. 18, returned to the work tab last week, breezing five furlongs in a bullet 1:00 at the Ocala Training Center.

Speaking of the Southwest, if you’re looking for a magabomb future book horse who’s running in Saturday’s San Felipe, keep an eye on a colt named Southwest, who was forced seven-wide going into the first turn and was five-wide turning for home in a Santa Anita allowance race, yet still closed well off a dreadfully slow pace to finish third behind On the Virg. Trained by Gary Mandella, Southwest is by Cozzene, out of a Quiet American mare, so he should only get better the farther he goes.

Ready’s Image, winner of the Sanford Stakes (gr. II), had his first work of the year after being sidelined with an injury last fall, breezing three furlongs in :39 2/5.