02/12/2008 12:00AM

Pyro's finish ignites Derby Fever

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NEW YORK - Now, it feels like we are on the road to the 134th Kentucky Derby.

Sure, there were stakes races for 3-year-olds run in January that were ostensible launching points for some Triple Crown aspirants. And the first pool of Churchill Downs's Kentucky Derby Future Wager did open for business last Thursday. But it wasn't until Saturday, after Pyro's victory in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, followed Sunday by Georgie Boy's upset of Into Mischief in the San Vicente at Santa Anita, that it felt like Derby season had really begun.

With all due respect to Georgie Boy, who was decisive in his eye-catching upset of CashCall Futurity winner Into Mischief in the San Vicente, it was Pyro who had most to do with this sudden onset of Derby Fever. By virtue of his second-place finishes to the undefeated champion War Pass last fall in the Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Pyro was already a top Derby contender, which made him easily the most important member of his class to have raced so far this year. His performance Saturday, which was impressive both visually and for pace reasons, was just what you would want to see from a top Derby prospect. And if Pyro can return the way he did, it's exciting to think what might be in store for us when War Pass swings back into action. Derby Fever, indeed.

It's hard to imagine that anyone who watched the Risen Star would have given a plugged nickel for Pyro's chances turning for home. Beyond being last of 11 at that stage, which was not an insignificant point unto itself, he was in that spot after an extremely slow pace that should have left every serious rival in front of him with plenty still in reserve. How slow was the pace? The half-mile fraction of 49.50 seconds was more than two seconds slower than the same fraction for the two main-track route stakes that immediately preceded the Risen Star, the Silverbulletday and the Mineshaft Handicap. The six-furlong fraction of 1:14.62 was more than three seconds slower than the corresponding time in the Silverbulletday. Given that there was no deep closer's track bias at Fair Grounds on Saturday - in fact, the winners of the Silverbulletday and Mineshaft were forwardly placed early - Pyro had little business winning from where he was.

Moreover, Pyro didn't exactly have a clear run to the wire. He was blocked behind a wall of horses and had to be angled out sharply for racing room, which had to compromise his momentum at least to some degree. Nevertheless, he blew past his field late like they were standing still to win by daylight, going away.

Well, the rest of the Risen Star field might have been standing still, which leads to the first of two aspects about Pyro's comeback that might be fodder for critique. His winning Beyer Speed Figure was a pedestrian 90, a number that usually won't get you close in the Kentucky Derby. In this instance, it is probably best to consider the circumstances. The pace in the Risen Star was so slow that it was impossible for any normal horse to produce a fast final time. In fact, Pyro did well to post a final time that was less than a second off the final time of the Silverbulletday. Besides, Pyro has already shown he can run rapidly. He cracked the triple-digit Beyer barrier in both the Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, when he was a younger, less mature animal than he is now.

The other aspect to Pyro's Risen Star that might be open to criticism is a bit more problematic. Since, given the circumstances, Pyro had little business winning, let alone winning as impressively as he did, it could well be that there was absolutely nothing behind him. This is not a small consideration, not when in Pyro we're dealing with a horse whose only other win was a nose decision in a maiden race. It is important to remember that weak competition can make a superior opponent like Pyro look better than he might actually be.

There were a couple of other noteworthy performances at Fair Grounds on Saturday: Indian Blessing's victory in the Silverbulletday and Grasshopper's score in the Mineshaft.

Although she was the odds-on favorite, Indian Blessing defied the wiseguys (which included yours truly) by winning the Silverbulletday by a diminishing length over the comebacking Proud Spell. Even though Indian Blessing's stock was boosted later on Saturday when Golden Doc A, whom she outlasted in last month's Santa Ynez, won the Grade 1 Las Virgenes at Santa Anita, Indian Blessing continues to look shakier than most undefeated champions would. You won't have any trouble finding a lot of folks who believe Proud Spell will catch Indian Blessing next time. In the meantime, shaky or not, all Indian Blessing does is win.

Grasshopper was thoroughly professional winning the Mineshaft with total authority. He is a welcome addition to the highest levels of the handicap division, a division whose strength depends entirely on whether Curlin can beat the odds and demonstrate top form on these shores after competing in his goal of the Dubai World Cup in March.