03/04/2008 12:00AM

Pyro to take on eight in Louisiana Derby

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Pyro won the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 9 at Fair Grounds, in his 2008 debut, with a did-you-see-that, last-to-first stretch run – but he did not scare everyone away from Saturday’s $600,000 Louisiana Derby, the high point of the Fair Grounds meet.

The Louisiana Derby, one of six stakes on a 12-race card drawn Monday, got a field of nine, with top prospects Tale of Ekati and Majestic Warrior in from Florida to take on Pyro.

Florida-based Stevil, who has lost three entry-level allowance races since winning his debut last fall, was a surprise entrant from trainer Nick Zito.

Yankee Bravo is the lone California shipper, and four other locally based horses were entered: Blackberry Road, J Be K, My Pal Charlie, and Unbridled Vicar.

While horsemen with Kentucky Derby hopefuls are lining up for a chance at Grade 2 earnings in the Louisiana Derby, almost no one wanted to jump into the Fair Grounds Oaks fray.

The Oaks, a Grade 2 with a purse of $400,000, features a rematch between Indian Blessing and Proud Spell, who finished one-two in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and one-two in the Silverbulletday last month at Fair Grounds. Only two others, Acacia and Wisconsin Lady, were entered in the Oaks. Highest Class, third in the Silverbulletday, is being pointed instead to the Bonnie Miss on March?29 at Gulfstream, according to her trainer, Neil Howard.

Indian Blessing worked six furlongs Monday at Santa Anita in 1:11.60. Proud Spell went five furlongs Monday at Fair Grounds in 1:03.

Grasshopper is the likely favorite among seven horses entered in the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap, a race that includes the venerable Brass Hat. Also entered are Silver Lord, second to Grasshopper in last month’s Mineshaft, and Circular Quay, whose last win came in the 2007 Louisiana Derby.

Grasshopper worked five furlongs Monday in 1:01.40, going his final furlong in less than 12 seconds, Howard said.

The $500,000 Mervin Muniz drew an excellent field of 10, headed by Fair Grounds Handicap winner Daytona, who will break from the far outside stall Saturday. Other top contenders include Brilliant, Proudinsky, and Twilight Meteor.

Saturday’s stakes sequence ends with the Bienville, for female turf sprinters, and begins with the day’s hidden gem, the Duncan Kenner at six furlongs on dirt. The Kenner’s seven-horse field includes King of the Roxy, Noonmark, Euroears, Les Grands Trois, and Semaphore Man.

Still, Saturday afternoon builds to a crescendo in race 9, the Louisiana Derby, in which Pyro can cement his status on the short list of top Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Pyro, who won for just the second time in his career in the Risen Star, breezed an easy half-mile in 50.80 seconds Monday after doing his major Louisiana Derby work last week.

“I loved how he came out of the [last] work, and trusted him to do right, and he did,” trainer Steve Asmussen said.

Pyro and jockey Shaun Bridgmohan drew post 3, directly inside the Asmussen-trained J Be K, who has won two sprint races by more than 12 lengths combined to begin his career. J Be K, the likely pacesetter, will be ridden for the first time by Kent Desormeaux.

“I think that’s an ideal draw for both of them,” Asmussen said.

Tale of Ekati, who makes his first start since finishing a distant fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, drew post position 6, and will be ridden for the first time by Edgar Prado. Tale of Ekati worked five furlongs in 1:00.20 on Monday at the Palm Meadows training center.

Majestic Warrior, who breezed a half-mile in 48.40 seconds on Sunday at Payson Park, fared poorly at the draw, landing post 9 for his two-turn debut. He makes his first start since finishing a distant sixth as the heavy favorite in the Champagne Stakes on Oct. 6, a race in which he was compromised by a foot ailment.

Robby Albarado picks up the mount on Blackberry Road, who had a terrible trip when he finished fifth in the Risen Star.