01/30/2008 12:00AM

Curlin, Pyro impress with joint drill

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Eclipse Award finalist Pyro cemented a berth in the Feb. 9 Risen Star Stakes with another sterling workout Wednesday morning at Fair Grounds. And it is not out of the question that his Wednesday work-mate, Curlin, also could start his 2008 campaign the same day in New Orleans.

Curlin and Pyro worked in tandem for the second time in six days, and Wednesday's breeze was even weightier than their bullet five-furlong drill last week. Fair Grounds clockers got the pair going six furlongs in 1:13, while trainer Steve Asmussen timed them in 1:12.60, with a one-mile gallop-out in 1:40.40. Only one other six-furlong breeze was recorded at the track Wednesday, but to put the strength of the breeze in perspective, the gallop-out alone was faster than many one-mile races run this meet at Fair Grounds.

"I was impressed with them today," Asmussen said.

Asmussen said two weeks ago that Pyro was going to have to pick up the pace of his training in order to make the Risen Star, and he has. Unraced since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Pyro has been on a steadily progressive path since settling into Asmussen's New Orleans barn late in 2007.

His presence in the Risen Star means Asmussen will have two of the favorites for the race, with Lecomte Stakes winner Z Fortune also slated to start.

"I think that it's where they're both at right now," Asmussen said of running two Kentucky Derby prospects in the same spot. "They both have a lot of ground between here and the Kentucky Derby, and this is the best way to get there."

One of the horses will require a new jockey: Shaun Bridgmohan has ridden Pyro in all four of his starts, and was on Z Fortune for the first time in the Lecomte win. Asmussen said jockey assignments for the pair have not been finalized.

"I think I know what I'm going to do, but I have to speak with the owners," he said.

Curlin, meanwhile, was one of 16 horses nominated to the $150,000 Mineshaft, a prep for the New Orleans Handicap. Jess Jackson, Curlin's majority owner, confirmed on Jan. 21 at the Eclipse Awards that Curlin would race again in 2008, though as of Wednesday morning, no plans for his seasonal debut had been set.

Curlin's future retains a degree of uncertainty because a 20 percent ownership stake in the horse is the subject of a legal dispute. The Midnight Cry Stable holds the minority stake, but its principals are in jail awaiting trial in Kentucky, accused of defrauding their clients of millions of dollars after winning a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the diet drug fen-phen.

Curlin is among the nominees to the Dubai World Cup, but he also could start his season in the much more obscure Mineshaft if Jackson elects to pursue a campaign closer to home. To that end, Fair Grounds and Churchill Downs Inc. officials have considered adding some sort of incentive to lure Curlin to the Mineshaft and the New Orleans Handicap.

"We're exploring options in terms of how to enhance those races," Fair Grounds spokesman Lenny Van Gilder said. "I would anticipate knowing more by the end of this week."

Grasshopper's plans may change

Trainer Neil Howard had penciled in the Mineshaft as a good spot to start the 2008 campaign of the promising 4-year-old Grasshopper, but Howard would quickly change his plans if Curlin's connections decide to start their horse in the race.

"If Curlin does run, I know we won't be running," Howard said. "We just don't want to blow every hair off his back this early in the year."

With less fanfare than Curlin, Grasshopper has been posting his own glittering workouts this month at Fair Grounds. Grasshopper has worked every five, six, or seven days since Dec. 28, and in the last two weeks has logged two strong six-furlong works.

Also training well for Howard is Brilliant, who has not started since going off form with a sixth-place finish in the Aug. 5 Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga. Brilliant also has been on a healthy work schedule, and Howard said the turf horse is "about ready to go," but Brilliant is not likely to start in the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup on the Feb. 9 mega-card.

"I might try to find an allowance race for him," Howard said. "We hope to have a chance to run him in the Mervin Muniz."

The $500,000 Muniz is scheduled for March 8.

Better Talk Now to Fair Grounds BC

Things could change, but at this juncture, Fair Grounds appears to be in the process of hitting a grand slam on its Feb. 9 Louisiana Derby Preview Day. Several highly promising 3-year-old colts and fillies should be present, the Mineshaft Handicap could come up strong, and the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup may draw the best field in the race's history.

In addition to Showing Up, who will ship from Florida, Better Talk Now is coming to New Orleans from trainer Graham Motion's base at Fair Hill training center in Maryland.

"That's been our plan for a while now," said Motion, who hopes to use the race as a springboard to the Dubai Sheema Classic on the March 29 Dubai World Cup undercard.

Nine-year-old Better Talk Now failed to show his best when he finished a distant fourth over the boggy Monmouth grass course in the Breeders' Cup Turf, but has been among the top grass horses in the country for four years. Rather than give Better Talk Now a post-Breeders' Cup break, Motion kept the gelding in steady training, and he has posted five recent works over the Fair Hills all-weather track, the most recent of which was a seven-furlong breeze Monday. Better Talk Now will work once more before flying to New Orleans on Wednesday, Motion said.