03/10/2008 12:00AM

J Be K upset choice vs. Pyro

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NEW YORK - Big doings Saturday at Fair Grounds, with the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby heading a program that also includes five other stakes. The most notable of the supporting stakes are the New Orleans and Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial handicaps, and the Fair Grounds Oaks. Other events of note on a busy national stakes schedule Saturday include the Gradeo1, $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks, and the Grade 3, $250,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

Louisiana Derby

Pyro, Tale of Ekati, and Majestic Warrior are quality colts. Pyro is, of course, at or near the top of everyone's list of Kentucky Derby contenders off his efforts against War Pass last year and his visually impressive score in the Risen Star Stakes in his first start this season. Tale of Ekati and Majestic Warrior are also highly regarded Derby candidates off solid graded stakes victories last year at 2. These three deserve to be the first three betting choices in this race, and no one should be surprised if they finished one-two-three Saturday. But I'm going with J Be K to upset.

As strong as they look on paper, Pyro, Tale of Ekati, and Majestic Warrior are not invincible. Pyro will have a much tougher time blowing past this much stronger field the same way he inhaled his Risen Star opponents. As for Tale of Ekati and Majestic Warrior, both will be making their first start since October. And since both are in decent position in terms of graded stakes earnings (an important consideration in securing a berth in the Kentucky Derby field), they can afford to use this race as a mere prep. But the biggest problem these three face Saturday is there is absolutely no one to run early with J Be K.

So far, J Be K has suggested that he might also be a good one. He romped in track-record time in his career debut last summer at Saratoga, and he galloped at Fair Grounds last month in his first start since after contesting early fractions that were by far the fastest of the day. This will be J Be K's first stakes, and first attempt at two turns. But he is bred to get the trip, and he should be a big enough price to make the risk of whether he is good enough worth taking, especially with his pace advantage.

The Very One Handicap

I'm hoping J'ray's sharp recent form will make her the favorite over Mauralakana, because Mauralakana looks like a strong play.

There are two good reasons to like Mauralakana. First, she is returning at 1 3/8-mile distance she obviously can handle, as evidenced by her strong near-miss in the Glens Falls Handicap last summer. Second, there are enough stretch-out pace-pressers in here to suggest that she can sit back comfortably off the early pace. That is by far her most effective style, as she showed not only in the Glens Falls, but also when she hit the board against such high-class performers as Karen's Caper and Vacare in her first two U.S. starts.

Gotham Stakes

Visionaire, coming off a third to Pyro in the Risen Star, and the undefeated Giant Moon are the name horses here, but both have obstacles to overcome. Visionaire won't get the draft-along-the-rail trip he got in the Risen Star since he must break from the outside, while Giant Moon will likely have to come from farther off the pace than he ever has before. And everyone in this race will probably have to deal with a sloppy track, what with a forecast for heavy rain.

Rain would help Saratoga Russell, my pick. Saratoga Russell ran off and hid in the slop at Gulfstream most recently, his second straight big win from three starts, and he is the speed of the speed in this field. This will be Saratoga Russell's first try around two turns, but Aqueduct's inner track is the right place to try a speed horse stretching out.