04/14/2008 11:00PM

History says don't dismiss Pyro


This is the time of year for great delusions. Owners and trainers seem to need very little reason to run in the Kentucky Derby. Capacity fields in the last few years are usually pinned on Giacomo, winner of the 2005 Derby at odds of 50-1. But you can't blame him for 17 horses trying unbeaten Smarty Jones in 2004, or the 18 that lined up in 2002, or the 19 who thought they could topple firm favorite Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.

At the same time, it is impossible to embarrass those individuals who toss their 3-year-old into the Derby without a whisper of a chance. The Derby has become, for better or worse, a race that requires participation, even if it means risking a colt's subsequent career. It makes perfect sense that the Derby is the only race people outside the sport care about. Lately, though, the Derby is becoming the only race people inside the sport care about as well.

Which brings us to that crashing sound heard last Saturday, when the Pyro Express derailed into a Lexington ditch on its way to the Kentucky Derby.

After two thoroughly professional pieces of work in the Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby, exhibiting the kind of closing kick that has been known to win Kentucky Derbies, Pyro finished far behind victorious Monba in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes. It was ugly.

Depending upon the source and point of view, reasons for Pyro's flop have boiled down to, a) he could not "handle" Keeneland's Polytrack in his first crack at a synthetic surface, or b) he was just not that good anyway, at least according to the speed-figure lobby, so it should not have come as a surprise.

There is also a third path, a physical problem, either undisclosed or yet to be discovered. This would answer all Blue Grass mysteries, but it also would take a nice colt out of the Derby picture. So far, three days downstream from the Blue Grass, there was no word of anything amiss.

For those who are skeptical of Steve Asmussen's dismissal of Pyro's effort last Saturday as a function of Polytrack, it does not take much effort to completely disregard any Blue Grass result as an aberration caused by the racing surface. There is plenty of precedent, even predating the Polytrack conversion. Avatar, Gato del Sol, Desert Wine, Avies Copy, Unbridled, and Thunder Gulch are just a few of a herd of young runners who ran disappointing races at Keeneland, only to bounce right back and fire big at Churchill Downs.

"Thunder Gulch is a great example," said Ron Winchell, Pyro's owner and breeder. "Here's a colt who wins the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby, then loses the Blue Grass and is totally disregarded in the Kentucky Derby."

Thunder Gulch won at 24-1.

Winchell hopes that Pyro's pattern ends up resembling a piece of the recent past, when his filly Summerly was the star of New Orleans, winning the 2005 Silverbulletday and the Fair Grounds Oaks, then hit a wall in the Ashland at Keeneland.

"She threw in a real clunker," Winchell said. "She was fourth, but beaten almost 20 lengths."

In her next start, Summerly won the Kentucky Oaks by two, at odds of 9-2.

"I went to the barn after the race Saturday night," Winchell said of the Blue Grass. "My number one thing when a horse runs that badly is that it's a breathing problem. But he doesn't make a noise like that's the case. His legs were as cold as could be - not a hot spot anywhere."

Winchell also took some solace from the fact that such well-regarded Blue Grass hopefuls as Cool Coal Man (ninth) and Big Truck (11th) kept 10th-place Pyro company at the back of the pack.

"Cool Coal Man had some really solid races going in there, too," Winchell noted. "But he wasn't the favorite, so he doesn't get the scrutiny. I'm sure not going to throw him out of my Derby trifecta."

In 2004, Winchell was represented in the Derby by Tapit, like Pyro a son of Pulpit.

"Tapit threw in a clunker in the Florida Derby that year," Winchell recalled. "But that was a little different because he was kind of sick all along. Then he came back with a pretty good performance in the Wood, and we thought we were back in the swing of it for the Derby."

He finished ninth.

"With Tapit, it was always, 'If we can just get him right . . .'" Winchell said. "With Pyro, we've never been behind the curve. He's always been right there. The only 'if' was, 'If we can just keep everyone out of his way.' Now we've got an 'if.'"

Winchell is carrying on the stable established by his father, the late Verne Winchell Jr., who had his own way of looking at the game.

"He was always a pessimist," Winchell said with a laugh. "We'd go into a big race and he'd say, 'We're not going to win it.' Then when we didn't, it would be, 'See. I told you.'

"So winning is always the exception," Winchell added. "And the Blue Grass actually relieves a little pressure, and maybe lets us avoid all that Derby hype. I don't think we would have chosen where we finished in the Blue Grass, though. Second or third would have been nice."