08/20/2008 11:00PM

This crop's second tier is puzzling

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - On the first Saturday in May, both the tote board and the prognosticators said that only three horses could win the Kentucky Derby: Big Brown at 2-1, Colonel John at 9-2 ,and Pyro at 5-1 were the only three in a 20-horse field sent off at less than 13-1 and together accounted for more than 50 percent of the win betting.

They were right, sort of. Big Brown proved that day, and confirmed in the Preakness two weeks later, that he stands head and shoulders above the 3-year-olds of 2008. Even if he flounders in his final two scheduled Curlin-ducking starts before retirement, or never runs again, he's a shorter price to get the Eclipse Award next January as the champion of his crop than he was at 1-5 in the Haskell three weeks ago.

What's a lot less certain is just how good Colonel John and Pyro ever were or might yet turn out to be. They finished sixth and eighth in the Derby, less than a length apart and on either side of the hapless Anak Nakal, but without giving any impression that they had fired their best shots. Now both return in a Big Brown-less 139th Travers Stakes Saturday at Saratoga, where fans will have to make a key decision: Are they has-beens, never-weres, or still the cream of the rest of the crop?

The two colts have blurred the vision of even the sharpest handicappers and for similar reasons: A disconnect between the eye and the clock, and the uncertainty produced by racing conducted over artificial surfaces.

Pyro's victories in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, like Colonel John's in the Sham and Santa Anita Derby, were pleasing to the eye but dismaying to students of time. Colonel John looked like a determined and professional racehorse, and Pyro's late bursts had the sparkle of true quality to them. But the winning speed figures they earned, on the Beyer scale or anyone else's, were among the slowest in the history of those preps.

The debate raged back and forth. Colonel John's figures supposedly were low because of the artificial surfaces he was racing over, where a slower-paced style of racing might have been producing a narrower band of final times. Pyro allegedly was doing only what he had to, turning on the jets just briefly to dispose of inferior competition. Then the picture grew even blurrier when Pyro tanked and ran 10th at even-money in the Blue Grass, a race contested over a Polytrack surface and that produced six Derby starters. Pyro turned the tables on his Blue Grass opposition in the Derby, but the sextet ran 8-9-12-15-18-20 in Louisville.

Since Derby Day, neither colt has exactly returned with a vengeance. Colonel John was a no-excuse (beyond a nine-week layoff) third in the Swaps. Pyro beat third-raters in the Northern Dancer, then fell a half-length short of catching Macho Again in the Jim Dandy, a race run slightly slower than the Henry Walton, an overnight stakes under identical conditions run half an hour earlier.

So why, albeit with little confidence, am I picking Pyro to win the Travers?

First, because the race is a mile and a quarter, and that will only work to Pyro's advantage. Of the 13 horses who ran July 27 at Saratoga in either the Walton or the Jim Dandy - and seven of the 12 Travers starters ran in one or the other - Pyro was the only one to run his last three-eighths in under 38 seconds. He was going to catch Macho Again in another few strides, and in the Travers he gets an entire additional furlong to work with.

Second, I still don't believe in Colonel John. Plenty of horses have recorded triple-digit Beyers on artificial surfaces, yet Colonel John remains stuck in double-digit territory and may have just been the best of an unusually weak bunch of California 3-year-olds this year. His crowning moment remains a Santa Anita Derby where he barely nailed Bob Black Jack and Coast Guard.

Third, the prominent new shooters have a lot to prove. Harlem Rocker owns the biggest figure in the field - the 106 he earned beating top-class sprinter J Be K in the Withers - but he failed even to approach that level in his two two-turn starts in Canada.

So let's call it Pyro, Mambo in Seattle, and a little bit of Tale of Ekati, and not just because I have a lifetime contract to bet him. He made a big middle move into the hot pace of the Jim Dandy before flattening out in an effort that may have been designed to get him ready for this. I'm not at all sure that 10 furlongs is his best game, but he did win the Wood Memorial and finished fourth in the Derby - beating the still enigmatic duo of Colonel John and Pyro.