03/10/2008 12:00AM

Still skeptical about Pyro

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NEW YORK - Pyro was tons the best winning Saturday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, and he firmly remains one of the top two contenders for the Kentucky Derby, along with War Pass. But while other folks are inclined to heap even more praise on Pyro, I'm not. At least not yet.

Let me assure you that I am not a Pyro basher. Heck, off the way he gained ground late on War Pass in the Champagne, I picked him in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. No, I'm not down on him because I lost a bet on him in the Breeders' Cup. He and War Pass were the only two to do any real running in the Juvenile. And Pyro has since done nothing to warrant disfavor, winning both of his starts this year. But I am still not nearly as sure about how good a horse Pyro really is as other people seem to be.

The Louisiana Derby was supposed to help clarify things. It was supposed to be a truer test than the oddly run Risen Star last month, which Pyro won in visually impressive fashion over second-rate company in slow time attributed to a slow early pace. Yet, the Louisiana Derby was in some respects strangely reminiscent of the Risen Star.

Tale of Ekati, winner of the Futurity last fall at Belmont Park, and Majestic Warrior, winner of the Hopeful last summer, were supposed to provide strong opposition for Pyro. Neither, however, really ran a jump. So if you take them out of the equation, the remaining Louisiana Derby field was pretty much of the same ilk as the Risen Star's.

The pace in the Louisiana Derby was not fast, but the early fractions were in line with the other two-turn races on the card. Yet, just as in the Risen Star, Pyro did not record a fast final time. He required 1:44.44 to complete the 1 1/16 miles. That was 0.43 of a second slower than the filly Proud Spell went the same distance winning the Fair Grounds Oaks one race earlier. It resulted in Pyro earning a modest Beyer Speed Figure of 95, which was only five points higher than his Risen Star figure.

But aside from Pyro winning convincingly again, there were a few positives to take from his performance. As trainer Steve Asmussen noted after the race, Pyro was into the game early, racing in easy striking distance. When a closer like Pyro is not at the mercy of the pace, he is a much more dangerous performer. And Pyro made a couple of moves Saturday, an asset that can often be helpful in oversized fields like the Kentucky Derby.

Those are nice plusses, for sure. But they're not enough for me to think that it still isn't Pyro looking up at War Pass, who defeated him all three times they met last year, instead of the other way around.

You have to wonder about the apparent reluctance to use speed as a weapon Saturday at Fair Grounds. The most obvious example was J Be K in the Louisiana Derby. J Be K showed high sprint speed winning both of his starts before Saturday, and it looked like the only way he wouldn't enjoy a sizable early lead was if he got left at the start. But it was obvious two strides out of the gate that J Be K was being taken back, and that allowed the 60-1 My Pal Charlie - who had never before made the early lead in five career starts, three of which were around two turns - to set the pace. With the way J Be K gave way in the stretch, it would be silly to argue that things would have been different for him if he had taken a clear early lead - although it should be noted that My Pal Charlie did manage to gut it out for second. It is not silly, however, to question the wisdom of completely conceding the pace advantage that was there for J Be K's taking Saturday.

This was not the only example. Grasshopper had a golden opportunity to open up a lead of a couple of easy lengths on the first turn of the New Orleans Handicap. Instead, he was put under a hold. This resulted in Grasshopper's having to volley for the lead with Magna Graduate for much of the backstretch and far turn. It also allowed Circular Quay easy access to early contention. And when Circular Quay made his quick and what turned out to be winning move to the lead on the far turn, it meant that Grasshopper had to continue to go head and head, which can take a lot out of a horse no matter what the fractions. The strategy with Grasshopper was reactive rather than proactive, and it didn't work.

You could even question how Indian Blessing's speed was used in the Fair Grounds Oaks. I certainly don't think the Oaks result would have been different if Indian Blessing had been ridden more aggressively. Proud Spell, who showed the improvement expected of her in her second start of the year, was probably going to wear down Indian Blessing no matter what. But Indian Blessing, despite all she had previously accomplished, looked very shaky in the late stages of her races this year. She's not going to win a grind-it-out contest going two turns against quality opposition, at least not right now. But that was the position she was put in Saturday when her speed was so prudently doled out. Indian Blessing has a much better chance against top company going long when she's allowed to ramble early, and play catch me if you can.