07/26/2008 11:00PM

Jim Dandy offers hot Travers prep


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Before most people had heard of Big Brown or Da' Tara, Pyro was the darling of this year's 3-year-old crop. But a bad performance in the Blue Grass and an aggressive training regimen thereafter led to a disappointing eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.

Five weeks after the Derby, however, Pyro rebounded with a solid victory in the Grade 3 Northern Dancer at Churchill Downs. Trainer Steve Asmussen hopes that was a springboard to a strong second half of the year, one that continues with a start in Sunday's Grade 2, $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.

The Jim Dandy is the local prep for the $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 23. Since the New York Racing Association moved the Jim Dandy to four weeks before the Travers, Jim Dandy winners have gone 3 for 3 in the Travers.

That fact, combined with the absence of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown - who is pointing to the Haskell at Monmouth on Aug. 3 - explains why the Jim Dandy drew a strong field of eight, including Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara, Wood Memorial winner Tale of Ekati, Preakness runner-up Macho Again, Belmont third-place finisher Anak Nakal, Dwyer winner Mint Lane, and Iowa Derby winner Tiz Now Tiz Then.

Eye-catching victories in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby put Pyro atop many handicappers' Kentucky Derby rankings in early March. But after the colt's 10th-place finish in the Blue Grass over Keeneland's Polytrack, trainer Steve Asmussen said he may have overcompensated by doing too much with Pyro in the three weeks leading to the Kentucky Derby, where he was beaten 15 lengths by Big Brown.

"I shook his confidence and got out of the rhythm I thought we had established over the winter," Asmussen said. "We rocked the boat."

After a brief freshening following the Derby, Pyro looked rejuvenated with a solid victory in the Northern Dancer, in which he was a stalking presence. Among the horses he beat was Visionaire, who came back to win a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race here on Thursday.

"He ran his race in the Northern Dancer," Asmussen said. "He was very comfortable, he was confident, he was in hand, he accelerated when he called on him."

In 2004, trainer Nick Zito won the Travers with Birdstone, who hadn't run since winning the Belmont Stakes 11 weeks earlier. Zito does not feel he has the luxury to wait that long with Da' Tara and Anak Nakal.

"As far as the Jim Dandy's concerned, it's a great race to win, but obviously we'd like to have both horses sharp for the Travers," Zito said. "If we gave them too much of a layoff they might not be as sharp for the Travers. They both need to run."

Zito said that Da' Tara, who won the Belmont at 38-1, has had "a great couple of weeks. His coat looks fabulous and it's dappling out all over."

Da' Tara likes to do his running on the front end, but Mint Lane may be quicker than he is early. Though Mint Lane is making his third start in 45 days, trainer Jimmy Jerkens says the horse has thrived on this schedule, and Jerkens wants to find out if he belongs with the better 3-year-olds.

"I don't see any point in waiting; he's in shape, he's on a run," said Jerkens.

Trainer Barclay Tagg put in Tale of Ekati, who finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, despite the fact he feels he's a work short.

"This might set him better for the Travers than a hard race, a ship that might take too much out of him for the Travers," said Tagg, who had been considering next Sunday's Haskell.

Macho Again won the Derby Trial and finished second to Big Brown in the Preakness. He found the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont too far, finishing fifth, beaten 11 lengths. Trainer Dallas Stewart gave him a couple of weeks without a breeze, but has worked him three times, including a bullet five-furlong move in 1:00.80 before shipping here. "He got his energy and weight up," Stewart said. "I thought he responded really well."

Tiz Now Tiz Then has won three straight, including the Iowa Derby. Longshot Alaazo completes the field.