02/07/2008 12:00AM

Stronger than your average preps

Louis Hodges Jr.
Pyro, a strong second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, has been working in company with Curlin.

NEW ORLEANS - Watching a video at home, it's fine to skip the previews and go right to the feature film, but viewers of the Thoroughbred scene won't want to fast-forward past Louisiana Derby Preview Day on Saturday at Fair Grounds.

Six Saturday stakes here are supposed to preview more important races next month, but this card stands on its own merits.

Featured on an 11-race program is the Grade 3, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes, which drew a field of 12, but will go with no more than 11, since Check It Twice never shipped from Florida. The Risen Star includes the one-two finishers from the Lecomte Stakes here last month, and will be the 2008 debut of Pyro, among the most promising members of the 3-year-old class.

The Risen Star is race 9 on an 11-race program, with a scheduled post time of 4:28 Central, and it is the cashing leg in a slew of multi-race wagers. Fair Grounds has moved its pick six to encompass races 4 through 9, all of them stakes. An all-stakes pick five starts with race 5, an all-stakes pick four with race 6, and there is a Silverbulletday-Risen Star daily double on races 8 and 9.

The Silverbulletday features a Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies rematch between the champion 2-year-old filly, Indian Blessing, and Proud Spell. Race 7, the Fair Grounds Handicap, pits Better Talk Now against 4-year-old Grade 1 winner Daytona. Earlier, Grasshopper, second in the Travers, will make his 2008 debut in the Mineshaft Handicap, and in the Colonel Power, unbeaten Euroears tries to win again. Saturday's weather forecast for sunny skies and the temperature in the high 60s looks ideal.

This is 3-year-old season, so the afternoon's focus narrows onto the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star. The race is solid, but Pyro already has been keeping good company this winter, though he has yet to start. Until he ripped through a powerful solo five-furlong drill Tuesday, Pyro was working in company with the Horse of the Year, Curlin - and holding his own. And it is this sort of talent that makes Pyro much more than the typical horse eligible for an entry-level allowance race.

Trainer Steve Asmussen thought enough of Pyro to jump him into the Grade 1 Champagne last October after Pyro had finished third in an entry-level allowance sprint at Saratoga. Asmussen knew what he had. Pyro's running line from the race shows a fast-closing second-place finish behind War Pass, who would go on to beat Pyro in the BC Juvenile, and jockey Shaun Bridgmohan said Pyro's Champagne was even better than it looks on paper.

"I was in behind a wall of horses and couldn't shake loose," Bridgmohan said. "When I had a chance to wheel him out and find some daylight, he really closed the gap."

While War Pass skipped over a sloppy track in the BC Juvenile, Pyro was struggling, Bridgmohan said.

"I don't think it was his best racetrack, but he handled it as well as he could," Bridgmohan said. "He went from pulling me in the Champagne to slipping and sliding."

Asmussen has tried to bring Pyro around gradually, to level out his rate of development, but Pyro may be doing too well right now. Asmussen expressed concern after Tuesday's work that Pyro might run a stronger race Saturday than was desired first time back.

Pyro's stablemate, the unbeaten Z Fortune, rose up from two New York-bred wins to impressively capture the Jan. 12 Lecomte by 2 3/4 lengths, only finding his full stride near the finish of the one-mile race, which uses a shortened stretch. He and new rider Garrett Gomez are drawn on the outside, but Z Fortune has tactical speed to get good position in a race that appears to lack significant early speed.

A lack of speed is not what trainer David Carroll wanted for late-running Blackberry Road, who was no match for Z Fortune while a closing second in the Lecomte.

"I think you'll see a progression with him as the distances increase," Carroll said. "But the key is probably going to be pace."

Florida shipper Visionaire, who will make his two-turn and stakes debut Saturday, turned heads with an easy entry-level allowance race win Jan. 4 at Gulfstream.

"He'll do whatever the rider asks him to do," trainer Michael Matz said. "He's got a tremendous mind to him."

From California comes another entry-level allowance winner, Signature Move, who set foot on a dirt track for the first time when he jogged two miles here Thursday.

"I'm here to see how he ships, see how he runs on dirt, and see how he fits in with these horses," trainer Eric Guillot said.

Ronny Werner trains The Darp, a talented colt who faded to fifth after setting the pace in the Lecomte. Werner thinks The Darp is a better horse than that. And like most everyone else with a Risen Star horse, he sees the race as a crossroads.

"Either he is the kind, or he isn't," Werner said. "We're going to find out."