03/12/2008 11:00PM

Hoping for a classic rivalry

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NEW YORK - Thirty years after the epic battles of Affirmed and Alydar, American racing fans are starting to hope that they might see another 2-year-old rivalry continue into the Triple Crown.

Let's deliberately pause for a moment. Inhale. Exhale. It would be sacrilege as yet to mention War Pass and Pyro in the same breath as those two brilliant Hall of Famers. Right now, the nation's two leading 3-year-olds are more like Devil's Bag and Dr. Carter in March of 1984, an undefeated 2-year-old champion and his closest pursuer. Both of those colts lost their next starts and neither even made it to the gate for the Derby. Still, at least for the moment, there are enough broad similarities to spark dreams of an old-fashioned, two-horse showdown in the Kentucky Derby.

This one would have more foundation to it than even the best 3-year-old rivalries since 1978. Alysheba and Bet Twice met just once before the 1987 Derby, when they ran third and fourth behind Capote and Qualify in the 1986 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer hooked up for the first time in the 1989 Derby, as did Curlin and Street Sense last year. Silver Charm and Free House squared off three times before the Derby, but never met at 2 and neither was favored on Derby Day.

Affirmed and Alydar met an astounding six times as 2-year-olds, with Affirmed winning four of the showdowns, then went their separate ways until the first Saturday in May. Both of them reeled of four odds-on victories in each other's absence. Despite the 2-year-old tally, Alydar was 6-5 to Affirmed's 9-5 on Derby Day, a bit like Pyro's being favored at 5-1 over War Pass at 6-1 in the first Derby future pool and again at 4-1 versus 9-2 in the second pool, which closed last Sunday.

War Pass and Pyro are scheduled to have three rather than four Derby preps. Pyro has already won his first two, recording visually impressive though relatively slow triumphs in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. He'll have his final tuneup on April 12 in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, a race that Alydar won by 13 lengths.

Pyro's competition this year has been suspect but stronger than the pitiful fields that have been rounded up to run against War Pass - the three claimers and a stablemate he trounced in his season debut at Gulfstream, and the six tepid opponents he will face in the Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday. He'll be 1-5 to complete that task and then head to the Wood Memorial. If all goes to plan, he and Pyro would then square off on Derby Day as the first one-two juveniles to return undefeated at 3 for a Derby Day showdown since - take a breath - Affirmed and Alydar.

Perhaps the biggest difference, aside from the obvious issue of quality, is that it's unclear whether War Pass and Pyro are separated by inches or daylight. Affirmed beat Alydar by a neck in the Laurel Futurity, a head in the Belmont Futurity, and a half-length in the Hopeful, foreshadowing his combined victory margin of less than two lengths over Alydar in the three Triple Crown races. War Pass, on the other hand, beat Pyro by a combined 13 lengths in their three meetings last year - by 6 3/4 lengths in a Saratoga allowance race, by 1 1/2 in the Champagne, and by 4 3/4 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

As the Derby future betting suggests, however, they are widely perceived as being closer together than that, probably because of their running styles and pedigrees. War Pass is a stone-cold front-runner and a son of the sprinter Cherokee Run, while Pyro is a closer whose two grandsires, A.P. Indy and Wild Again, both won the Breeders' Cup Classic at the Derby distance. Pyro's supporters expect him to blossom further as the races get longer, while War Pass's distance capabilities will still be doubted even if he goes into the Derby undefeated.

It's probably too much to hope for that even one of them turns out to be close to either Affirmed or Alydar, and certainly too much to hope that they'll both be running for long after this year. Affirmed and Alydar made a combined 20 starts after their Triple Crown heroics, but War Pass and Pyro have both already been syndicated as stallions. War Pass will to go Will Farish's Lane's End Farm, while Pyro is headed to the Maktoum family's Darley, which purchased the breeding rights to the 3-year-olds Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday last year and retired them all at season's end.

So let's enjoy it while we can.