04/09/2008 11:00PM

Out to secure their Derby spots

Fair Grounds
Pyro, like Street Sense last year, is using the Blue Grass as a prep.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - There are 12 horses entered in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland, and while they range in ability from one of the elite contenders for the Kentucky Derby to several starry-eyed dreamers, all is not what it may seem on paper.

To be sure, factors such as pace, speed, and class are crucial, as in any race. The ability to handle Polytrack as well as the expected cold and damp conditions will be needed. But the overriding theme of this Blue Grass could be intent.

Horses such as Pyro, who will be favored, and Cool Coal Man already have enough earnings in graded stakes races to get into the May 3 Derby no matter what happens Saturday. But for those needing to ring up the register, the Blue Grass is paramount.

As such, this Blue Grass mirrors last year's - the first run on Polytrack - when Street Sense came into the race merely in need of a prep for the Derby. Masterfully trained by Carl Nafzger, Street Sense was a close second in the Blue Grass to the longshot Dominican. Three weeks later, Street Sense won the Derby, with Dominican 11th.

"Any time you run against the best as a 2-year-old and come back like ours did, you're there," Nafzger said at Keeneland earlier this week. "I don't know what Pyro needs. I don't train him. But I know they will be able to get what they need out of this race and go on."

Pyro heads into the Blue Grass off stylish late-running victories in the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. He may simply be too good for his rivals on Saturday, even if his main goal is three weeks away.

"I think his style fits the racetrack, and he stays," said Scott Blasi, the top assistant to Pyro's trainer, Steve Asmussen.

"I'd like him to win it," Asmussen said Thursday, "but, more importantly, I'd like him to get enough out of it to go on and win the Derby."

Asmussen has such great trust in Blasi that he will be leaving Pyro in Blasi's care on Saturday. Asmussen will be at Oaklawn Park to run both King's Silver Son and Z Fortune in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby.

The Blue Grass and the Arkansas Derby are two legs of a national pick four that also includes the Commonwealth at Keeneland and the Instant Racing Stakes at Oaklawn. The Blue Grass is the ninth race on a 10-race card that begins at 1:10 p.m. Eastern time. It will be seen live on TVG, and on tape delay on ESPN as part of a telecast that features live coverage of the Arkansas Derby and the Holy Bull Stakes from Gulfstream. ESPN's 90-minute show begins at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.

Polytrack is designed to handle all weather, and if the forecast from Weather.com is accurate, the track will get a workout. Thunderstorms, some severe, were predicted for Thursday night and Friday, with the chance of rain put at 80 percent. A cold front is expected to follow on Saturday, with a predicted high of 51 degrees and a 30-percent chance of rain.

Cool Coal Man won the Fountain of Youth Stakes in his last start Feb. 24, but form of that race has looked questionable based on subsequent performances by Elysium Fields, who was second, and Court Vision, who was third. Nick Zito, the trainer of Cool Coal Man, said the Blue Grass is a means to an end.

"I want him to get a nice race out of it," Zito said Thursday morning. "That's why I chose the Blue Grass. Look at Street Sense last year. That's a good criteria. The Blue Grass is a Grade 1. It's a great race to win. But if he has a good race, I'll be very happy."

Zito also is sending out the longshot Stevil.

Visionaire finished third to Pyro in the Risen Star, his first race around two turns, and then captured the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. He drew the outside post in the Blue Grass.

"Not many made up ground that day at Aqueduct," said Visionaire's trainer, Michael Matz. "He improved and ran a better race his second time going two turns than his first."

Big Truck comes off a victory in the Tampa Bay Derby, a performance that was overshadowed by War Pass's flop in that race.

"He seems to be doing well, and there's still a few preps around, so he might need the money," said his trainer, Barclay Tagg. "But if the weather's horrible I might not run anyway."

The Blue Grass will be the first race on a synthetic surface for Big Truck, Cool Coal Man, Pyro, and Visionaire.

Cowboy Cal and Monba give trainer Todd Pletcher two chances in the race. Cowboy Cal, a two-time stakes winner on turf, has not raced since Feb. 16.

"He puts a lot into his training and doesn't carry a lot of weight," Pletcher said. "Should he show up and run well Saturday, I would be going to Churchill with a horse I wouldn't feel is overused."

Monba will be making his first start since he was 12th and last in the Fountain of Youth. Pletcher said he chose the Blue Grass for Monba over next week's Grade 2, $325,000 Lexington Stakes here because "should he run well, I'd like the extra week going into the Derby."

Monba won his debut on Polytrack at Keeneland last fall. He, Halo Najib, Medjool, and Miner's Claim are the only horses in the Blue Grass with victories on a synthetic surface.