Pyro captured the Feb. 9 Risen Star (gr. III) with a stunning stretch run.

Pyro captured the Feb. 9 Risen Star (gr. III) with a stunning stretch run.

Alexander Barkoff

Ky. Derby Trail: A Rising Star

Pyro put on a spectacular exhibition in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III).

The Kentucky Derby trail received the spark it had been looking for when Pyro put on a spectacular exhibition in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. III). There is no doubt Pyro is a top-class horse with a powerful closing kick, but before we get too euphoric, let’s not forget that this has happened many times at Fair Grounds.

In past runnings of the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby (gr. II), remember how excited everyone became over the explosive stretch runs by Scipion, Mighty, Circular Quay, Wimbledon, Dollar Bill, and Fifty Stars, all of whom looked like sure Derby horses with their emphatic victories mowing down the field and drawing off.

Fair Grounds, with its long stretch, is conducive to these kinds of victories. It also seems as if horses often run into severe traffic problems in these two races. Remember Dollar Bill almost going down after clipping heels in the Louisiana Derby or last year’s Risen Star stretch debacle, involving Circular Quay, I’mawildandcrazyguy, and even the victorious Notional. And there have been other similar incidents.

This year’s Risen Star also had the recipe for disaster when Pyro, dead-last at the top of the stretch, appeared hopelessly out of it, engulfed in a sea of horseflesh. While he somehow was able to meander his way through and around horses, Blackberry Road, on the rail, was not as fortunate. Trapped behind horses every step of the way, he never was able to unleash anything resembling his typical stretch run and had to settle for fifth, beaten 1 1/2 lengths for second.

And then there was the pace and resulting final time, which was a full second slower than the Silverbulletday (gr. III) and more than a second slower than the Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III). After running three-quarters in 1:11 2/5 in the Silverbulletday, how in the world did they manage to go the six panels in 1:14 3/5 in the Risen Star? And how in the world did Pyro manage to come from last to win going away?

Well, first of all, he came home in sensational closing splits of :23 flat and :05 and change for the final sixteenth, and made the others look like they moving in slow motion as he charged to the lead. Second, he just may be that much better than the rest of the field, several of whom also came home in fast fractions -- just not anywhere near as fast as Pyro. Like last year’s roughly run Remsen Stakes (gr. II), the speed figures in the Risen Star likely will not prove to be an accurate barometer as to the talents of Pyro, as they weren’t with Remsen winner Court Vision.

It just seems inconceivable that a horse can run a :23 quarter while trapped behind horses and then running sideways searching for running room, during which he had virtually no forward momentum. Let’s also remember that the aforementioned Blackberry Road never was able to run a step in the stretch, as one hole after another closed up on him. When he finally was steered abruptly to the rail, that also closed, and he had to alter course back to the outside after either brushing the rail or coming awfully close to it. Yet, as we said, he was beaten less than a length for third and only 3 1/2 lengths for all the money.

So, what does one make of this oddly run race and extraordinary performance? For now, you can ignore the slow fractions and final time and just assume Pyro is a terrific horse, who likely propelled himself to the top of most of the leading contenders’ lists. Or you can say that the race was too bizarre and wait for Pyro to prove for sure that he doesn’t belong on the list of Risen Star and Louisiana Derby winners mentioned earlier. Judging from his big closing efforts against War Pass in last year’s Champagne (gr. I) and Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and his physical presence, the logical deduction is that he is an extremely talented horse who is worthy of Derby Future Wager favoritism, and that we can expect similar fireworks in the Louisiana Derby and future races.

Risen Star runner-up Z Fortune, looked like a winner after turning for home, but he was having a hard time shaking free from the up-and-coming Visionaire when Pyro came flying by, so the jury is still out on the previously undefeated LeComte Stakes winner. As long as he keeps away from his stablemate he'll be a formidable foe wherever he shows up.

Visionaire actually appreared to be going nowhere approaching the top of the stretch, but he cut the corner, while hugging the rail, and kept plugging away down the stretch to hold on for third in his first stakes appearance. Having come from well out of in his three previous starts, it was a bit surprising to see him close up in third down the backstretch, but the lethargic fractions no doubt played a major part in the change of strategy. The son of Grand Slam had little racing room until he turned for home, so he ran a bit one-paced compared to his previous starts. All in all, it was a good solid effort and we should expect an improved performance next time. Fourth-place finisher Unbridled Vicar runs hard every time against top competition, and although he hasn’t won since last September, he’s always right there and merits respect.

An interesting sidelight of the Risen Star was the performance of Signature Move. Although it could have absolutely no bearing on anything, it at least provided us with some kind of a gauge to California synthetic track horses running on dirt for the first time. Signature Move was coming off two impressive victories on the Cushion Track at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. After stalking the slow early pace in the Risen Star, the son of Vindication tired badly, finishing 10th, beaten 19 lengths.

Bye George

Another powerhouse performance over the weekend was the victory by Georgie Boy in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II). This was Georgie Boy’s first start since his score in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II) Sep. 5 and he unleashed an explosive run to blow by Into Mischief and Massive Drama in the final furlong, winning by 3 1/4 lengths in the absurd time of 1:20.

Georgie Boy has now made six starts, all on artificial surfaces, winning three, with two seconds and a third. In his two seconds, he battled head and head on the lead, but in his three victories he came from well off the pace. He’s won with blinkers and without blinkers, and in five of his last six works, he either had the fastest or second fastest time on the tab, at four, five, six, and seven furlongs. So, there is no doubt, this is a very talented and brilliant horse.

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The question now is, how far does he want to go? He’s never won beyond seven furlongs, but doesn’t have the look of a sprinter. His pedigree is obscure, being by Tribal Rule, out of a mare by Peterhof. But Tribal Rule is a son of Storm Cat, out of a mare by the Darby Dan stallion Grenfall, a full brother to Maud Muller, winner of the Gazelle Handicap and placed in the Coaching Club American Oaks, Mother Goose, and Test Stakes; and a half brother to Cum Laudie Laurie, winner of the Beldame, Spinster, Ruffian Handicap, and Delaware Oaks, and to Florida Derby winner Prince Thou Art. Grenfall won three stakes in Ireland, including the 1 1/4-mile Gallinule Stakes. Peterhof is a son of English and Irish Derby winner The Minstrel, out of a half sister to the great classic winner and sire Mill Reef. So, there is a lot more to his pedigree than meets the eye.

As for the even-money favorite Into Mischief, seven furlongs is not his game, especially dropping back to a sprint after winning the 1 1/16-mile CashCall Futurity (gr. I). The son of Harlan’s Holiday ran well, pressing the front-running Massive Drama all the way. In midstretch, he shied from a right-handed whip and jumped over to his left lead, ducking in and losing momentum just as Georgie Boy was charging up on his outside. He quickly switched back to his right lead, but by then, Georgie Boy was long gone, and jockey Victor Espinoza didn’t persevere with him in the final 70 yards. He’s a beautiful moving horse and showed his athleticism the way he recovered and smoothly switched back to his right lead. The race served as a good comeback  performance that should set him up well for a return to two-turn races.

Other weekend races

A one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Feb. 10 caught everyone by surprise when the Calder-based Hey Byrn pulled a performance out of his bag of tricks that defied explanation, at least on paper. The son of Put it Back, coming off a well-beaten fourth in the Foolish Pleasure Stakes Sep. 22, absolutely destroyed two hot shot rivals, Bordeaux Bandit and Jockey Ridge, winning by 14 1/2 lengths over a track listed as good. Although it didn’t look as if Bordeaux Bandit and Jockey Ridge, both coming off impressive maiden scores, cared for the off going, the winner’s performance came out of left field. The time was 1:37, which means runner-up Bordeaux Bandit ran his mile in just under 1:40, suggesting this could have been more about the track condition than anything. But not to take anything away from the winner, who ran a sensational race over a track he obviously loved. Hey Bryn is not nominated to the Triple Crown.

In Monday’s 1 1/16-mile Ocala Breeders’ Sale Championship at the Ocala Training Center, heavily favored Halo Najib asserted his class, overcoming traffic problems and drawing off to a 2 3/4-length victory over Texas-based and bred Hello From Heaven, with Maryland invader Ghostly Thunder finishing third. Halo Najib had finished second, beaten a half-length by Court Vision, in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III), and was coming off a third in the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II).

West Point Stable, owner of El Gato Malo, could have a powerful two-pronged attack from both coasts if their brilliant colt Saratoga Russell can stretch out to two turns after his stunning 10 3/4-length victory in a six-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Feb. 9. By winning under a hand ride in 1:10 over a sealed sloppy track, the son of Trippi now has back-to-back runaway victories after finishing second in his career debut to the highly regarded National Pride. Although Trippi suggests speed, he did win the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo Stakes, and Saratoga Russell’s broodmare sire is Theatrical, so there is no reason why he at least shouldn’t carry his speed two turns. How far we’ll find out in either the grade III Tampa Bay Derby, Gotham, or Rebel Stakes. As for El Gato Malo, he could make his dirt debut in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Bay Meadows March 8. Other options are the Sham Stakes (gr. III) and San Felipe (gr. II).

Horses to watch

If you’re looking for a live longshot in the Future Book who could be tough in Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay, keep an eye on Wise Answer, who turned in three straight runaway stakes victories at Calder last September and October. Among those he trounced twice is the aforementioned Hey Byrn, 14 1/2-length allowance winner on Saturday.

An attempt at the grass failed in the Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT), but the son of Wised Up has since turned in two super five-furlong works at Calder, including a bullet 1:00 flat last weekend. Wise Answer’s sire is a son of Dixieland Band out of a Smarten mare, and his dam is by the Pleasant Colony stallion Colony Light out of a mare by graded stakes winner Current Hope, a son of Little Current. So you’ve got some powerful classic blood in the female family.

All eyes will be on Nad al Sheba Thursday as Godolphin’s undefeated Etched takes on stablemate Numaany in the UAE Two Thousand Guineas (UAE-III). The son of Forestry has crushed his opposition in his first two starts, including a 6 1/2-length rout over eventual Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) winner Anak Nakal in the Nashua Stakes (gr. III). Numaany, you might recall, broke his maiden for Tom Albertrani, despite bolting in the stretch.

Two lightly raced horses who are playing catch-up, but still are worth watching are first-time maiden winners Kentucky Bear, who romped by 6 1/2 lengths going a mile at Gulfstream, and Manager Boire, who put in a powerful stretch run to win a six-furlong maiden race by 2 1/2 lengths at Fair Grounds. Both colts are training well for their big tests against winners.

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