04/06/2008 11:00PM

These days, fresh is best

Email

While the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn will have a large field of modestly credentialed Triple Crown nominees and the 1 3/16-mile Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park may have a few, most horseplayers will give the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland an extra long look. The presence of Pyro is the reason for that, as well as several other relatively high-profile Derby prospects.

Pyro, a visually impressive winner of two graded stakes at Fair Grounds this year, is using the Blue Grass as his final prep for the Kentucky Derby. This is by the design of his trainer, Steve Asmussen, partly because Street Sense used a good second-place finish in this race last year as a springboard to the Derby winner's circle.

For Asmussen, the Blue Grass is a key piece in a perfectly orchestrated campaign that has the look and feel of more traditional approaches to the Derby.

Some background seems worth a brief review.

Among other things, the Blue Grass historically has been the single most potent prep race for Derby, even though it was positioned just nine days out for most of the 20th century.

A seismic shift in training patterns that began in the 1980s forced Keeneland to move the Blue Grass several days farther back - to a full two weeks out. In more recent years, Keeneland followed the shift in training regimens and moved it farther back - to its present position three weeks out. This move virtually swapped places with the Lexington Stakes, which now is run as the final graded stakes prep, two weeks before the Derby.

As most players know, contemporary trainers are more comfortable with a final Derby prep three, four, or even five weeks out in an attempt to bring the "fresh horse" to Louisville. In earlier decades, however, proper preparation for the Derby was defined by a horse who had been well tested in several important races with room for a one-mile workout eight days before the 1 1/4-mile classic at Churchill Downs, plus an additional four- or five-furlong workout in mid-week. In those days it was fitness, not freshness, that ruled.

If you want some examples, go back in time to look at Carry Back's seven prep races and a 1 1/4-mile workout prior to the 1961 Derby; Foolish Pleasure's four races and several fast workouts for the 1975 Derby; Ferdinand's four races and an exceedingly strong one-mile work in company with a Grade 1 filly prior to his 1986 Derby upset; and a host of Derby winners from the 1970s through the early 21st century, when three preps and a series of five- or six-furlong works were the norm.

Fact is, three prep races still is the norm for most Derby prospects, but we also have begun to see more two-race campaigns with relatively moderate training moves sprinkled in between.

Barbaro certainly looked at the top of his game on Derby Day 2006, even though his last Derby prep was five weeks out and his works - while excellent - only made sense to those who appreciated trainer Michael Matz's extraordinary skill with distance runners.

Street Sense, too, was sharp as hands could make him last year when Carl Nafzger brought him to the first Saturday in May with only two prep races - the Tampa Bay Derby in mid-March and the Blue Grass Stakes - which he narrowly lost - in mid-April.

Curlin, a very good third in that Derby and a dead-fit winner over Street Sense in the Preakness while apparently just beginning to develop into the monster he has become, began his Triple Crown series with only three prior career races. Five weeks later, the filly Rags to Riches was able to defeat Curlin with no racing for the five weeks between her Kentucky Oaks and the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.

Those recent examples are blueprints for many modern trainers who now believe that "fresh" is the byword of the new training bible for the Triple Crown races. "Bring them in fresh!"

Under these new guidelines, even the very lightly raced and freakishly talented Big Brown is coming to the 2008 Derby with a license to win.

Coming in fresh - by design - also is the intent of trainer Eoin Harty. His horse Colonel John is heading to the Churchill Downs starting gate with only two prep races, both victories, including the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, four weeks out.

Yet, Pyro, the stretch-running winner of two graded stakes at Fair Grounds, will be making his third start of 2008 in the Blue Grass on Saturday, even though the Keeneland racing surface is Polytrack - not dirt - and Asmussen chose the Arkansas Derby for Curlin last year.

Pyro also has not had a cream puff campaign. He was in against good horses in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 9 (Visionaire, Blackberry Road, and Z Fortune), a race he won with a whirlwind finish. One month later, he came back to win the Louisiana Derby with more tactical speed and another strong finish. Behind Pyro were My Pal Charlie, Yankee Bravo, Blackberry Road, Majestic Warrior, and Tale of Ekati in what many have labeled the deepest prep race to date.

Moreover, the Blue Grass promises to be more than a walk in the park. Gotham stakes winner Visionaire is in the field. So too will be at least four others with Derby potential: once-beaten Miner's Claim, Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man, plus Halo Najib and Medjool, the second- and third-place finishers in the Lane's End Stakes. Adriano, the Lane's End winner, is going in next week's Lexington. Even Tampa Bay Derby winner Big Truck or Elysium Fields may be in the Blue Grass, pending a final decision by their trainer, Barclay Tagg.

Taking a page from Nafzger's well-developed approach to the Kentucky Derby, Asmussen will go into the Blue Grass knowing that he is saddling the best horse. At the same time, the race is being used as it was intended: A rich prep for the 1 1/4-mile target three weeks and 90 miles down the road.

Winning the Blue Grass would be nice, of course, and Pyro will be heavily favored to accomplish the feat. But, the key idea for Pyro is to gain added conditioning from the effort. Asmussen just wants the colt to come back to him without physical question marks and in perfect position for a few finishing touches during Derby week.

Some of the other horses in the field must do better than that to make the Derby starting field. Nothing less than a win or second-place finish will earn enough graded stakes money to assure these a place among the top 20 who will be allowed to run.

Of these, I would keep a special eye out for little known Medjool, who had a very wide trip in the Lane's End after having just won a maiden race at Santa Anita. Short of cashing a winning ticket on that longshot or any of the others, horseplayers should be ready to evaluate which horses in this race actually moved forward while leaving room for another forward move on Derby Day. The same essentially will be true for the horses competing in the Arkansas Derby, the Holy Bull, and even next week's Lexington. That after all, is the quintessential point of a final Derby prep race, executed perfectly by Nafzger with Unbridled in 1990 and again last year with Street Sense.

That is because the proper formula for training a Derby winner was laid out a long time ago and perhaps best expressed by the legendary Horatio Luro, who trained Decidedly and Northern Dancer to Derby triumphs in 1962 and 1964, respectively.

To paraphrase the master horseman, Luro's approach to Derby prep races stressed one crucial point above all others. When you squeeze the lemon, be careful to leave some juice in it.