04/09/2008 11:00PM

Will time tell in Blue Grass?


NEW YORK - A year ago, the first Blue Grass Stakes run over Polytrack unfolded at a glacial pace and ended in a four-horse photo finish that understandably baffled most handicappers. Street Sense, the champion 2-year-old of 2006, finished just behind Dominican and just in front of Zanjero and Teufelsberg, horses who had done nothing before (or since) to suggest they should be finishing that close to the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

It turned out that the Blue Grass was best ignored, or at least regarded as nothing more than a useful workout. A month later, Street Sense ran a powerful race to win the Derby as the 9-2 favorite, and the three others in that Blue Grass photo ran 11th, 12th, and 17th at odds ranging from 24-1 to 51-1. Proponents of Polytrack said the race proved that the synthetic surface is a great way to get a horse ready for the Derby, while those who dislike it said it illustrated the lack of meaningful form the surface can produce. Either way, the race seemed a good illustration of what the trainer Bob Baffert has said about the slow-paced, bunched-up style of much Polytrack racing - that it "makes good horses look average, and average horses look good."

Handicappers ignored the Blue Grass outcome and its slow Beyer Speed Figure of 93, and made Street Sense the Derby favorite, while dismissing the others, because of the colt's previous fast form, including a sensational 110 Beyer winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old. This year, if the race runs to Polytrack form and we have another close finish that is unimpressive against the clock, an even greater leap of faith will be required to support the Blue Grass favorite in the Derby. That is because the only knock on Pyro is that his two races this year have been unusually slow, and now he's having his final tune-up in the one Derby prep most likely to produce another unimpressive final time.

Pyro has been one of the top two public choices for the Derby since last fall, when he was second to War Pass in the Champagne, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and the voting for the 2-year-old championship He was the second choice to the mutuel field in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Futures Wager, the favorite in Pool 2, and second choice to Big Brown in Pool 3.

His two races this year have emboldened both his supporters and his detractors. His victories in the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby have looked dramatic and authoritative. Measured against the clock, however, they have been subpar for any serious Derby aspirant, much less one of the favorites.

It's probably unfair to carp about the final time of the Risen Star because the pace of the race was bizarrely slow. Pyro was last of 11 and nearly nine lengths behind an opening six furlongs in 1:14.62. When he finally got clear on the outside, he flew past the field with a powerful move and a sizzling final five-sixteenths in around 28.50. The final time of 1:44.68 for 1 1/16 miles was 0.93 seconds slower than Indian Blessing took to win the Silverbulletday and 1.24 seconds slower than Grasshopper's Mineshaft Handicap, but the slow pace made those comparisons tenuous.

In the Louisiana Derby, however, the pace was far more reasonable and Pyro stayed closer to it, but still ran significantly slower than the fillies and older horses on the same day. His winning time of 1:44.44 for 1 1/16 miles was slower than Proud Spell and Indian Blessing in the Fair Grounds Oaks (1:44.01) and compared unfavorably with Circular Quay and Grasshopper's 1:49.80 in the 1 1/8-mile New Orleans Handicap.

Pyro received Beyers of 90 for the Risen Star and 95 for the Louisiana Derby, sharply below the pars for those races in years when the Louisiana contingent of Derby aspirants are longshots. Are they misleading because of the colt's running style or a sign that he needs to move forward to be competitive with Big Brown, who earned a 106 Beyer winning the Florida Derby in just his third career start?

Some trainers turn hostile when what they consider that time-obsessed handicappers raise such questions about obviously talented and accomplished horses, but Steve Asmussen knows that time matters and understands the concerns about Pyro.

"He hasn't run a race to this point that is good enough to win the Derby," he said after the Blue Grass draw Wednesday, "But we also think he's in position to move forward. It'll all be timing and fortunate circumstances."