03/09/2008 10:53PM

The Pyro Dilemma


So which is it: Is Pyro a superior 3-year-old with an explosive turn of foot, unusual athleticism, and a boundless future? Or is he being overrated for two visually impressive but indisputably slow victories in Louisiana that make him a shaky 4-1 Futures Pool favorite for the Kentucky Derby?

There is going to plenty of furious debate along those lines in the weeks ahead, with Camp A saying that time doesn't matter and you're supposed to believe your eyes and Camp B saying that he's a terrible underlay because his races are slow and you're supposed to oppose such horses at short prices.

Pyro's Louisiana Derby victory was a nimble and professional performance as well as another good learning experience. He was put into the race much earlier than he was last time out in the Risen Star, fourth early behind a moderate pace instead of dropping out of it early. He got jammed up inside in upper stretch, but came through quickly when a path cleared, and proved clearly best.

On the downside, none of his most talented opponents did much more than show up and run poorly. Tale of Ekati and Majestic Warrior were in a tough spot for their season debuts but neither showed a thing. J Be K couldn't even make the lead. That trio ran 6-7-8. Take them out of the race and Pyro was 1-5 against five badly overmatched opponents, none of them legitimate Derby contenders.

Pyro's winning time of 1:44.44 was good for a Beyer Speed Figure of 95 on a straightforward day when the two other dirt-route stakes were faster. Proud Spell ran the same distance in 1:44.01 winning the Fair Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies half an hour earlier, getting a 99 Beyer. Circular Quay, who earned a 102 winning last year's Louisiana Derby, edged Grashopper in the New Orleans Handicap for older horses earlier on the card, running nine furlongs in 1:49.80 for a Beyer of 107.

Pyro will have his final prep in the Blue Grass at Keeneland April 12, and it's unlikely that race will solve the dilemma, given the slow-early nature of so much Polytrack racing, and the fact that Pyro is unlikely to be wound up for a peak effort. He might well beat another moderate field with a weak figure and go into the Derby looking no faster than a horse like Scat Daddy did last year. Personally, I think 4-1 is a severe underlay on him right now. He still has to beat War Pass, something he was in no danger of doing the three times they met last year, and it's likely that two or three other colts are going to pop big races in the remaining major preps. It's ultimately futile to try to answer the questions about his true quality just yet, but as a value decision, the price seems awfully low.

--Louisiana Derby Day was a rousing afternoon of racing even before the main event, and set several business records for the Fair Grounds, including the gross handle of $12.9 million on the 12-race card. The attendance of 9,971 was the highest at the track in 12 years, and the small grandstand-clubhouse building felt jammed all day, partly because unseasonably chilly temperatures in the 50's kept a lot of people inside. I couldn't get near the oyster bar next to the paddock, and the lines were 20 deep at the concession stands (which serve, in addition to the usual dreary hot dogs and donuts, corned beef po' boys, bread pudding with rum sauce and red beans and rice.)

The stakes action began with the ungraded (but not for long) $200k Duncan Kenner Handicap, where Euroears remained undefeated in six starts with a career-best effort that stamped him a very serious sprinter on the national scene. He settled beautifully just off Semaphore Man's moderate opening half-mile of 45.66, then took over at will with a brilliant fifth furlong in roughly 11.20, and scored by 3 1/4 widening lengths in 1:09.27, good for a 110 Beyer.

The $500k New Orleans Handicap was as good a horse race as you'll see all year. It was a "They're off...you lose!" race for me when Silver Lord dumped Corey Lanarie coming out of the gate. I can now see some appeal in retrospect of 6-1 on Circular Quay, making his second start off a layoff after a no-chance return in the San Carlos and returning to the scene of his Louisiana Derby triumph. Still, I thought Grasshopper was best losing by a neck. The fractions weren't fast, but Grasshopper unexpectedly ended up on the lead, successfully fought off Magna Graduate, looked cooked when Circular Quay went by him but fought back relentlessly from the inside.

The $500k Muniz Handicap was run on a yielding course that appeared tiring, so Daytona really didn't run badly as the favorite, leading to deep stretch before surrendering to Proudinsky and French Beret. Proudinsky fell three-quarters of a length short of catching Daytona in the San Gabriel Dec. 30, a race run three full seconds faster than the Muniz on a firm course. Proudinsky, a German-bred by Silvano, may be at his best on softer ground: he won his debut by 15 lengths on "heavy" turf in Germany.

In the Fair Grounds Oaks, Proud Spell was simply better than Indian Blessing while reversing two previous defeats. She stayed closer this time, but Indian Blessing still had every tactical advantage getting a clear lead in a four-horse field. Proud Spell flat out ran her down. It may prove to have been a transitional moment for pro-tem leadership of the division, at least until Country Star returns. I thought Indian Blessing was the likelier winner going in, but was surprised at the difference in their prices -- 3-10 on Indian Blessing and 19-10 on Proud Spell, as opposed to the more reasonable ML of 3-5 and 6-5.

Just for the record, here's the difference in Pyro's individual splits in the Risen Star and the Louisiana derby:

Risen Star 25.46...50.50...1:16.13...1:44.68
Lou. Derby 24.78...48.86...1:14.07...1:44.44

Note the difference in his come-home time. When he was able to lope the first six furlongs in the Risen Star in 1:16, he flew home in 28.55 for the final 5/16ths, whereas a first six furlongs of 1:14 Saturday resulted in a slower final 5/16ths of 30.37.