03/03/2008 1:00AM

Doing it the right way

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When we last saw Majestic Warrior he was failing to hold his stride together, finishing sixth to the emerging War Pass in the one-mile Champagne stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 6.

The weak performance was nothing like Majestic Warrior's impressive victory in the seven-furlong Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, but there was good reason for the disappointment. Apparently, as only revealed through X-rays taken a few weeks later, Majestic Warrior had endured a small fracture in his left front foot, an injury that knocked him out of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and forced surgical repairs.

Now on Saturday, after five months of rest, rehabilitation, and active training, Majestic Warrior will return to competition in the $600,000 Louisiana Derby at 1 1/16 miles at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Considering the options Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott had to choose from to start Majestic Warrior's 2008 campaign, his choice is both bold and intriguing.

With barely two months to the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby and no margin for error, Mott has elected to test Majestic Warrior in relatively deep water, against highly ranked Pyro and several other improving 3-year-olds with considerable seasoning.

Among them are Tale of Ekati, winner of the Belmont Futurity last fall, who has been training forwardly at Palm Meadows training track for Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Barclay Tagg; the undefeated Yankee Bravo, who won a maiden race in England last fall, a turf stakes at Santa Anita in December, and the California Derby on the Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields Jan. 27; and Pyro, second twice to 2007 juvenile champion War Pass in Gradeo1 stakes, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Monmouth Park, and returned to action on Feb. 9 with a powerful late surge to win the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

Trained by Steve Asmussen, Pyro is by Pulpit, making him a grandson of A.P. Indy.

He will be joined in the Louisiana Derby by his new stablemate J Be K, who scored an impressive five-length victory in an allowance sprint at Fair Grounds Feb. 15. Prior to that outing, J Be K had been trained by Bob Baffert in Southern California.

Still another experienced performer in the Louisiana Derby is Blackberry Road, who already has three in-the-money finishes in graded stakes at one mile or longer. In his most recent outing, Blackberry Road was a victim of severe traffic problems while finishing fifth in Pyro's electrifying Risen Star triumph. Unbridled Vicar, fourth in the Risen Star, also is a likely starter in the Louisiana Derby.

Any way this race is measured, Mott certainly is not copying the easy path chosen by two-time Derby winner Nick Zito for his juvenile champion War Pass. While War Pass won a handpicked allowance race over weak rivals at Gulfstream Park Feb. 24 to begin his 2008 campaign, Saturday's Louisiana Derby is not a race for cream puffs. As a result we are going to find out rather quickly what Majestic Warrior, a son of A.P. Indy, has to offer in his first race as a 3-year-old and first since he was forced to the sidelines.

What should we look for? What do we hope to see?

As a fan of this horse and of Mott's career, which rarely has focused on the Triple Crown series, I would hope to see a professional performance that clearly stamps Majestic Warrior as 100 percent healthy and ready to tackle the best 3-year-olds in America. A win without undue stress would be a major plus, if not convincing evidence that he is one of the elite Derby contenders. A solid performance would be nearly as promising, if not more realistic.

A lackluster effort might be forgiven, but only if this colt rebounds in his next start with significant improvement against several logical Derby contenders. Anything less would be clear evidence that the Kentucky Derby is not a sensible target for a horse trying to make it back from surgery.

Yet on the opposite end of the spectrum, Mott and fans of this horse hope that Majestic Warrior will not be pushed prematurely into a serious and protracted drive to the wire in his first start in six months. Such a tough battle just might be a shade too much at the first stage of his comeback.

Due to the injury and the subsequent rehab, a delicate balance must be observed to boost Majestic Warrior into the Triple Crown chase. Anything tilted away from that balance on Saturday probably will end Majestic Warrior's Kentucky Derby prospects.

Pyro, so strong while moving from last to first with his flashy final quarter-mile in the Risen Star, also will be an interesting study in the Louisiana Derby.

While he made a strong visual impression winning the Risen Star, it would be a big plus if he can avoid another tardy start and still provide an electric late move to score again.

Through his experience with Curlin last year, Asmussen knows that few horses win the Kentucky Derby with last-to-first moves through or around 18-20 horses. To overcome such inherent disadvantages, slow-breaking stretch-runners require complete pace meltdowns and a lot of racing luck.

Asmussen also knows that Pyro lost three straight races to War Pass, primarily because War Pass was able to take control of those races while Pyro struggled to get rolling.

As we have seen, War Pass has a high cruising speed and enough scope that he just may be able to outrun his middle-distance pedigree as a 3-year-old. So, if Pyro is going to be the one to pose the stiffest challenge this spring, he is going to have to improve his lazy habit of giving the field a head start.

With a race already under his girth, the Louisiana Derby gives Pyro a chance to take another step forward in that direction. Should he break in a reasonable manner and avoid lagging far behind the field, it will be intriguing to see if Pyro still maintains the same power in his stretch punch.

If, however, Pyro is asked to pick up the bit on the far turn, will he respond with a subtle move that brings him into the race before the final quarter-mile? Or, will he simply follow the script he used in the Risen Star to fire another very late rally?

I personally hope that Majestic Warrior resumes his promising career on a positive note because a fully restored and more mature Majestic Warrior would be a worthy challenger for War Pass and any other highly rated Derby prospect. For different reasons, I also hope that Pyro will exhibit the same running style he displayed in the Risen Star.

If that turns out to be the case, Pyro will be bet down mercilessly in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 2 and will be the likely second choice to War Pass on Derby Day, or perhaps even the wagering favorite should War Pass falter at 1 1/8 miles in April.

Similar notions can be found in every stakes prep for the Kentucky Derby from now through April for two different reasons that can help identify the right and wrong horses.

* Horses that put in positive prep race performances without emptying the reserve tanks prematurely are most likely to be important contenders on Derby Day.

* Horses that look good doing the wrong things in prep races tend to be seriously overbet while approaching complete elimination in the Kentucky Derby.

Although many disparate outcomes and points of view will be possible before and after the Louisiana Derby, the race could bring the Kentucky Derby picture sharply into focus. In fact, Majestic Warrior and Pyro could fulfill both criteria in the same race.