03/06/2008 1:00AM

Deepest test yet of Derby chances

Louis Hodges Jr.
Pyro trains at Fair Grounds on Thursday, getting ready for the follow-up to his Risen Star win.

NEW ORLEANS - Both War Pass and Pyro have gone on to establish themselves as the elite of this year's Kentucky Derby prospects, yet back in October, there was another colt considered superior to those two. Majestic Warrior was unbeaten in two starts, and was coming off a victory in the Hopeful Stakes, when he went off as the even-money favorite against both War Pass and Pyro in the Champagne Stakes.

The champagne bubbles went flat. Majestic Warrior finished sixth of eight. He has not raced since, a layoff of more than five months.

On Saturday, Majestic Warrior will make his first start since the Champagne in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby at 1 1/16 miles here at Fair Grounds. He will be attempting to re-establish himself as one of the top contenders for the May 3 Kentucky Derby. And the bar will be set quite high, for Majestic Warrior - who will be racing around two turns for the first time - will be squaring off with Pyro, who following the Champagne finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and then was a breathtaking winner here last month in the Risen Star Stakes.

"I understand he's running against good horses, there's no denying that," said Bill Mott, who trains Majestic Warrior. "But he's a good horse, too. I prefer to look at the positives of running in a race like this. It's the right distance, two turns, on a racetrack that, given normal weather conditions, is a fair racetrack."

The forecast from Weather.com was for thundershowers on Friday morning, but then clearing by Saturday. It will be cold, though, with a high of just 51 degrees after an overnight low in the 30s.

The Louisiana Derby is the deepest Kentucky Derby prep run to date. In addition to Majestic Warrior and Pyro, the field includes Belmont Futurity winner Tale of Ekati, two unbeaten colts - J Be K and Yankee Bravo - and both Unbridled Vicar and Blackberry Road, who encountered traffic in the Risen Star and are back for another go-round. All nine runners will carry 122 pounds.

The Derby, the ninth race, is the highlight of a sensational 12-race card at Fair Grounds that begins at 12:35 Central time. It is the final leg of an all-stakes pick five, and the final leg of a pick four that includes all four Grade 2 stakes on the card.

Fair Grounds ran a similar card on Feb. 9, and the winners of the four major stakes that day - Pyro, Grasshopper, Daytona, and Indian Blessing - are returning. Grasshopper heads the field in the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap for older horses, Daytona tops a field of 10 grass runners in the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap, and Indian Blessing faces Proud Spell in the four-horse Fair Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies. There is a daily double from the Oaks to the Derby.

Majestic Warrior drew the outside post in the Derby's field of nine. Bettors will have to decide if he will run back to his spectacular race in the Hopeful, or if the Champagne was a preview of coming attractions. Two weeks after the Champagne, Mott discovered some separation in the hoof wall of Majestic Warrior's left front foot.

"We felt that probably was the reason for his race in the Champagne," Mott said. "It's as good an excuse as we can find. We patched it and gave it time to heal."

Pyro will be favored. After running in the shadow of War Pass for three straight races last year, he created a buzz of his own with a last-to-first rally in the Risen Star. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, said the Louisiana Derby and the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 12 will be Pyro's last two preps for the Kentucky Derby.

"With him, you know you're in the Derby," Asmussen said. "It's just about getting good races into him. But we don't need to prove he's worthy of running in the Derby. I expect a strong race from him Saturday, and then a mile-and-an-eighth race over the synthetic should put him on target for a mile and a quarter."

Asmussen also will send out J Be K, the likely pacesetter. He has led from start to finish in his two starts, both sprints.

Tale of Ekati has not raced since finishing fourth behind War Pass and Pyro in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, his lone try around two turns.

"I thought he didn't like the slop that day," said Barclay Tagg, who trains Tale of Ekati. "A couple of horses relished it. He didn't like it at all."

Yankee Bravo will be making his first start on dirt after winning a pair of races on turf and one on a synthetic surface. He is bred to like dirt, being by Yankee Gentleman.

Unbridled Vicar was fourth and Blackberry Road fifth in the Risen Star, but both had trouble finding clear runs in the stretch.

"I don't think he had the best of trips," Greg Geier, who trains Unbridled Vicar, said at his Fair Grounds barn Thursday morning. "This race would mean a lot to me. I was born in Massachusetts, but I grew up here and was raised right here on the racetrack."

Robby Albarado replaces Calvin Borel on Blackberry Road.

"I just want to give him an opportunity to run in the Derby," said David Carroll, who trains Blackberry Road. "Distance won't be a problem. When he does have a good trip, he runs."

My Pal Charlie beat first-level allowance runners here in his last start.

Stevil has lost three straight to first-level allowance runners after defeating maidens. He will wear blinkers for the first time. Borel was named to ride at entry time, but Eddie Castro will replace Borel, who is riding Saturday at Oaklawn.