03/10/2008 11:00PM

Clash of titans shaping up in Blue Grass

Fair Grounds
Pyro, who earned a 95 Beyer for his win in the Louisiana Derby, is headed to Keeneland to make his final Kentucky Derby prep on April 12.

Pyro and Visionaire, who won the biggest Kentucky Derby prep races of this past weekend, are both headed to the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on April 12 at Keeneland, their connections said Monday. And the Blue Grass took on added significance on Monday when trainer Nick Zito said that it was likely going to be the final Kentucky Derby prep for Cool Coal Man, the winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes.

The Blue Grass was used last year by Street Sense as his final tune-up before his victory in the Derby. He finished second in the Blue Grass.

Pyro closed swiftly to win the Louisiana Derby, his second straight victory at Fair Grounds. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, on Monday said he was "very pleased with the effort, how he acted, and how he came back."

Pyro is scheduled to work March 17 at Fair Grounds, be put on a van the afternoon of March 18, and arrive in Lexington, Ky., the morning of March 19, Asmussen said.

"We put him in the race more, and he showed he could make more than one move," Asmussen said. "I feel very good that he did what we asked him to do. We get to stay on the journey."

Pyro on Sunday closed as the slight favorite in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager at 4-1, with the unbeaten War Pass next at 9-2. War Pass, who beat Pyro in all three of their meetings last year, runs this Saturday in the Grade 3, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

In addition to the Tampa Bay Derby, this Saturday also features the Grade 3, $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, and the Grade 2, $200,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. Anak Nakal, Denis of Cork, Face the Cat, and Z Fortune are among those expected for the Rebel, while the San Felipe will include sprint stakes winners Bob Black Jack, Gayego, and Georgie Boy, and European import Shediak.

All three of those races this Saturday, like the Louisiana Derby and the Gotham, are at 1 1/16 miles.

Pyro got a Beyer Speed Figure of 95 in the Louisiana Derby. He will try to become the first Louisiana Derby winner to capture the Kentucky Derby since Grindstone in 1996.

Visionaire got a 98 for his late-running victory in the rain and fog at Aqueduct in the Gotham Stakes on Saturday. He was scheduled to fly on Tuesday from New York to Florida, where he has been based this winter with trainer Michael Matz.

"He had a hard race; he doesn't need another hard race," Barry Irwin, whose Team Valor International is the co-owner of Visionaire, said of the reason for heading to the Blue Grass. "The Blue Grass will be run on Polytrack, which is easier to recover from. I think he needs the five weeks now."

Visionaire finished third to Pyro and Z Fortune in the Risen Star last month at Fair Grounds, which was his first race around two turns.

"He tries to please," Matz said. "He's a winner; he's a nice horse to be around. He looks like each race he gets something out of it to go to the next higher step. We've jumped up the last couple of races and he answered the bell."

The other graded stakes from last Saturday was the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, which drew a weak field and was won by the feel-good story Autism Awareness, who got a Beyer Figure of 87.

Those who chased Pyro on Saturday are largely avoiding him in the next round of preps for the May 3 Kentucky Derby.

My Pal Charlie, who finished second in the Louisiana Derby at 60-1, is most likely headed to the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on April 12, trainer Al Stall Jr. said Monday.

"He's just getting it," Stall said. "He's shown vast improvement in a short amount of time. I've never been so happy to finish in second place in my life."

The previously unbeaten Yankee Bravo, who finished third in the Louisiana Derby in his first start on dirt, was scheduled to return to his base in California on Tuesday and will await the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 5, trainer Paddy Gallagher said.

"I thought it was a nice race for him," Gallagher said. "He ran well, ducked out a little inside the eighth pole, but then straightened out and went on. For his first time on dirt, it was encouraging."

Blackberry Road, who was fourth, is under consideration for the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne on April 5, trainer David Carroll said.

Tale of Ekati, who finished sixth, is headed to the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5, according to Robin Smullen, trainer Barclay Tagg's assistant. Tale of Ekati, in his first start of the year, broke slowly under jockey Edgar Prado.

"He didn't get the trip we planned," Smullen said. "He broke flat-footed and was far out of it, but was coming at the end. Edgar said he had a lot of horse left and that he galloped out well. We were disappointed in the outcome but not the effort, and he got enough out of the race to proceed on to the Wood as planned."

The Wood is also scheduled to be the final Derby prep for War Pass, whose trainer, Zito, has several horses still in the mix for the Derby. Zito on Monday said Cool Coal Man would head to the Blue Grass because "that's his best shot at getting to the Derby."

Cool Coal Man has not had a workout since the Feb. 25 Fountain of Youth, but Zito said he was scheduled for one on Wednesday.

"He's doing good," Zito said. "He just needed more time."

Texas Wildcatter, who was an unlucky loser of the Gotham in his first start with blinkers, will return in the Wood, according to Seth Benzel, the New York-based assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher.

Giant Moon also could come back in the Wood, or go to the Illinois Derby the same day. Giant Moon finished last in the Gotham after winning his first four starts. His trainer, Rich Schosberg, said Giant Moon hated the sloppy track on Saturday, but came out of the race well.

- additional reporting

by David Grening

and Mike Welsch