03/09/2008 11:53PM

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.

Chuckles_the_Clown2 More than 1 year ago
I'd summarize it as follows: Pyro has not ran as fast as the fillies of his generation and appears to be the 1st or 2nd betting choice with a running style that doesn't often result in a clean trip.
TOGA More than 1 year ago
Steven, couldn't agree with you more keep up the great reporting. You have just moved to the head of the class with that article. To anyone else how can you honestly say Pyro is the leading candidate?? He still has one horse on the trail he hasn't even come close to beating in 3 previous tries and that horse is monster!
Dale More than 1 year ago
Gary, I did not check the takeout out La Downs, but your math and/or logic is faulty. Let's examine a 2 horse field with the following mythical betting pool and a takeout of 18%. Horse 1 has $545 bet to win on him and horse 2 has $455 bet to win on him...total win pool is $1000. After takeout of 18%, $820 is left to return to winning wagers...If horse 1 wins, each dollar bet returns 820/545 equals $1.50 per dollar bet which is a $3.00 payoff for a $2 bet (which equates to 1/2 odds). If horse 2 wins, each dollar bet returns 820/455 equals $1.80 which equals a $3.60 payoff for a $2 bet (which of course is 4/5 odds). This is assuming an 18% takeout which I think is pretty close to the standard at most tracks. Dale
Bob More than 1 year ago
Dale, You're math and logic are correct however your facts are off. The race in question was at Gulfstream where they go to great lenghts to advertise their low takeout of 17% on win, place, and show wagers. Ends up with the same payout but the widows and orphans or whoever the breakage is ear marked for had a good day.
Bob More than 1 year ago
Gary, Well you've got me wondering about the odds at Gulfstream and I'm thinking perhaps breakage is the answer. Generally breakage is a minor annoyance but with only 2 betting interests it could acount for a signicant portion of the pool, be interesting to hear Steve's take. Bob
Gary More than 1 year ago
This is a question (comment) for Steven Crist. I was at Gulfstream on Saturday. The sixth race was reduced to a match race between two horses (see chart). Communicated went off at odds of 1-2 and paid $3.00 for the win. Ode to Roy went off at 4-5 and would have paid $3.60 had he won. This means the track took 50% of the dollars bet in the win pool on the winner and 20% out of the win pool on the dollars bet on the loser. The track claims to take 17% out of the overall win pool. How can this math work? No matter how you look at it, it doesn't. A two horse race seems to illuminate that the track is actually taking much more out of the win pool than the advertised 17%. Is there any explanation for this? Thanks.
C More than 1 year ago
Hey Flip, I'm not ready to concede the Derby to Pyro or ANY horse at this stage, but I don't follow your logic: 1. No favorites won for a long time. Since 2000, we've had Street Sense, Barbaro, Smarty Jones, and Fusaichi Pegasus. Does this year's result depend on previous years? Horses can't read the tote board anyway. 2. He is due to lose--can't win every time. The horses mentioned above ran (or came very close to running) the table as 3yos. 3. Last prep on Polytrack--would it not be better to be on dirt? Example Dennis of Cork has won at Churchill Downs, and is used to the track. If a horse happened to run at Churchill at 2, good for them. Personally, I think it's a vastly overrated Derby angle. It might carry slightly more weight if Churchill had a 3yo prep in April. If Denis of Cork wins, it probably won't be because he has fond memories of running at Churchill last year. Just my opinion. 4.Pyro's odds will be low on Derby Day. Too low to play at 7-5. Nobody will be 7-5. Since 20 horse fileds became the norm, I can't recall a 7-5 shot. The favorite is often around 4-1. 5. Going from wood chips to smooth sandy dirt could mix him up. I feel this is a definite threat, and this coming Derby could be the first major race in which a horse is being asked to change running surfaces and win anyway. Wood chips at Kenneland? Street Sense won last year after prepping in the Blue Grass, which is where Pyro is headed.
todd More than 1 year ago
The Great Pyro Debate: here goes nothing...i am surprised at some of things i have read here and at other blog sites, and here is why. the speed figures are only 1 part of the puzzle, and most importantly, the horse knows nothing about such things. the horse in question, pyro, reurned from his layoff sharp, tough, and ready for action, which is more than can be said for alot of his peers. he has raced in 2 stakes races, at a track that no one would ever call fast, and has won both times in hand. he has raced out of trouble, and finished the way only a very good race horse finishes. the thing that is even more surprising is that many writers seem to forget that he is in the hands of arguably the hottest and best trainer in the country, and i doubt this horse has even missed an oat since he has returned. he is the real deal, and as each race goes by, it is apparent that he is definitely amongst the elite tier of his group. last item: i doubt that war pass will run back to his gaudy fig's as a 2 yr old. even if he did/does, the majority of handicappers will dismiss his having to bounce anyway, so the truth is, it is a no win situation. i am pretty sure street sense did not run back to his huge BC fig, yet he won the derby and probably should have won the preakness. the huge figs did nothing for bellamy road or sweetnorthernsaint, for example. people are going to see just how good WP is on sat, and in the coming weeks, and until otherwise, the derby is his race to lose. but i would not mind being where the pyro folks are 1 bit! thanks guys and gals
AndyScoggin More than 1 year ago
Yes, Autism Awareness may be the big human interest story this spring, like Afleet Alex and Alex's Lemonade Stand. I'm all for it as my 6 YO son has autism and there is nothing more life changing than that. When we go to the track, instead of teaching my son about handicapping I have to hope that he will be just a little interested in looking at the horses. That's OK, he and I go to MTH often in the summer anyway. We saw the Pyro race, I think I tried to beat Pyro. Maybe I shouldn't be trying to teach him to handicap. LOL Anyway, go AUTISM AWARENESS!
otbtony More than 1 year ago
Not the biggest of Derby Future plays either or future plays in general. Bet Candy Ride some time back in B.C. future on closing weekend at Saratoga. Didn't make the Cup and think he never raced again. But be honest, if War Pass romps again in T.B. and Wood (quite likely), he won't be anywhere near 4-1 on Derby Day. He'll be 2-1 or less. He and Pyro do appear to tower over everyone, so 5-1 on either is a somewhat sensible play now, isn't it?