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Mar 14, 2008

Will the Derby be a replay of the BC Juvenile?

By: by Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor; SPORTS NETWORK

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - War Pass and Pyro ran one-two in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year at Monmouth Park, after finishing in that same exact order in the Champagne at Belmont three weeks earlier.

So far in 2008, the two top-rated three-year-olds have combined for three victories in three starts, and unless another horse puts forth dominating back-to-back performances over the next five weeks, it clearly looks as if the Kentucky Derby will be a two-horse event.

In fact, the closing odds for Pool 2 confirmed that the public is clearly all over these two exciting three-year-olds. Pyro is now favored at 4-1 while War Pass, who defeated Pyro three straight times last year, is second choice at 9-2. The field, which closed as the favorite in the first future wager, now stands at 6-1.

Pyro unleashed another mammoth stretch drive this past Saturday, winning the Louisiana Derby by three lengths over My Pal Charlie. The son of Pulpit ran his final 2- furlongs in 30 2/5, nowhere near the unbelievable 28 2/5 he scorched home in his Risen Star victory, but extremely solid nonetheless. On the other hand, his final time of 1:44 2/5 was 2/5ths slower than the fillies ran just one race earlier in the Fair Grounds Oaks.

Despite the relatively slow race, Pyro received a 95 Beyer number, up five points from his win in the Risen Star. More impressive than his final time or length of victory was his positioning during the race. Shaun Bridgmohan had him forwardly placed, never worse than fifth, throughout the entire running of the LA Derby, a style that will surely help him as he continues to prepare for the big one in Kentucky.

The one difference in his two 2008 victories was his closeness to the pace. In the Derby, he was fourth at the quarter pole, compared to 10th after two furlongs in the Risen Star. Still, his first-quarter times in both races were not that far off: 24 4/5 in the LA Derby and 25 1/5 in his prior win. He just looked visually faster in his last race since he was much closer to the front- runners.

The big dissimilarity came in the next half-mile, when he pulled off a 49 1/5 four furlongs as opposed to the 51 1/5 he ran last month. That was what placed him in much better position this past Saturday. (For those not attuned to how the fractions work - one-length equals 1/5 of a second.)

One huge hurdle was left to overcome as the field approached the top of the stretch. Pyro was still a few lengths behind the early pacesetters: My Pal Charlie and J Be K, when the latter began to bear in, leaving little room for Pyro to make his patented stretch drive. However, the lightly raced J Be K, who was obviously laboring in the lane, bore out just enough to give Bridgmohan a seam to burst his charge through. Once that happened, you could have turned your sets off right there, because no one was going to out-finish the three-year-old king of Louisiana.

The only thing fans of this horse have to worry about is his penchant for getting caught in tight quarters around the far turn. In both of his three- year-old victories, Pyro's jockey has insisted on keeping him as close to the rail as possible.

Take a look at the replay of the LA Derby and you'll notice what I'm talking about. Instead of blowing past Blackberry Road to engage My Pal Charlie and J Be K three-wide, Bridgmohan decided to sit the rail, allowing Blackberry Road, and then Majestic Warrior, to pass him on his outside. All of a sudden, Pyro was shuffled back to fifth and blocked with no hole to squeeze through.

As previously mentioned, J Be K's inexperience allowed Pyro to bust through an opening, but if Bridgmohan continues to ride him this way, especially in a race such as the Kentucky Derby where the fields don't get any bulkier, it might be asking too much for Pyro to walk off with the "Roses" especially as the first or second choice in the betting.

Trainer Steve Asmussen has one more race to get him ready for Churchill and that will come on April 12 over at Keeneland in the Blue Grass Stakes. It's still too early to tell what his competition will be that afternoon, as there are a host of races for trainers to choose from in the month of April, but one thing's for sure, no horse from Louisiana should be able to out-finish him in Kentucky.

Among those that ran in the LA Derby, Yankee Bravo looked the most impressive despite his greenness through the stretch. Still the previously undefeated charge ended up a decent third and may get his share of support next time out. On the downside, he has never broken out of the gate in a timely fashion, a trait that does not scream "Kentucky Derby winner."

As mentioned earlier, Majestic Warrior looked like he was about to run off and hide around the far turn, but he obviously needed the race after finishing a well-beaten seventh. This was his first start since disappointing as the even money favorite vs. War Pass and Pyro in last year's Champagne, and as things stand today, it's doubtful he'll be ready to tackle those two in eight weeks.

Tale of Ekati, who was also making his first appearance this year, was bumped coming out of the gate and was a non-factor the rest of the way. Improvement is expected but he may need more than one race to challenge for the blanket of roses.


When Visionaire was entered in the Risen Star off back-to-back victories, he was made the 5-1 third choice behind Pyro and Z Fortune. The son of Grand Slam enjoyed a ground saving trip and ended up third in an extremely chalky trifecta.

Michael Matz had a plethora of choices for Visionaire's next race - the Louisiana Derby, the Rebel at Oaklawn to be run this Saturday, or the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. He decided to go to New York and it turned out to be the right move. The lone horse in the field to have raced in a two-turn graded event drew the extreme outside post (10) in a race diluted to the naked eye by the immense fog that hovered over Ozone Park all afternoon.

Visionaire had trailed through much of the early going unable to handle the sloppy track, but as the race continued, it seemed only one horse, Texas Wildcatter, was capable of gripping the wet surface, sailing through the stretch virtually alone. That is, until Visionaire emerged from the fog, eating up the slop with each powerful stride, nailing his opponent just as the two hit the wire.

Those who backed Matz's finest three-year-old since Barbaro were awarded with a decent price of $11 to win. One might imagine his next appearance will be in New York, where he'll most likely meet the top three-year-old in the land in War Pass.


War Pass still has one more prep race to run before the Wood Memorial and it comes this Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby. It's doubtful there will be any top horses challenging him, save for Dogwood Stables, Atoned.

The Todd Pletcher-trained three-year-old will be making his 2008 debut after finishing second to Court Vision in the Remsen last November. Atoned stumbled badly approaching the backstretch that day, but remarkably was able to lead the field through the lane until Court Vision ran him down in the final few jumps. The son of Repent has reportedly put on a ton of muscle since December, and is training forwardly for his return.

Denis of Cork puts his unbeaten mark on the line in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park after a solid showing in the Southwest in mid-February. The bay colt has closed very effectively in all three of his victories, including a win over the Churchill Downs surface in his maiden win.

The bulk of the expected field will be horses "Cork" abused in the Southwest, save for one Steve Asmussen colt named Z Fortune. The son of Siphon was undefeated before running into Pyro in the Risen Star, but he didn't disgrace himself one bit by finishing a bang-up second.

Even though post positions have yet to be drawn, the way the public has jumped all over Denis of Cork (12-1 in Pool 2 down from 46-1 last month) it looks as if he'll be the bettor's choice. The pick here, though, is Z Fortune to hold off the late charge of the expected favorite.

The final major race comes from the west coast, where a bunch of sprinters will vie for bigger and better things in the 1 1/16 San Felipe at Santa Anita. Georgie Boy, winner of the San Vicente tackles Bob Black Jack, who aired in the Sunshine Millions Dash and Gayego, winner of the San Pedro.

Georgie Boy is the lone entrant of the three that is actually bred to run more than a flat mile, so look for him to gain the victory and then challenge Colonel John and El Gato Malo in the Santa Anita Derby.


After weeks of being on Court Vision's bandwagon, I am ready to concede the top two spots to War Pass and Pyro. That is not to say I have lost my "vision," it's just that he has a lot of ground to make up on the top two and I don't know if he'll be able to do so with just one more race before the Derby. Heading into mid-March, here is how the top 10 looks:

1) War Pass, 9-2; 2) Pyro, 4-1; 3) Court Vision, 16-1; 4) Colonel John, 17-1; 5) Tomcito, 6-1 - field; 6) Z Fortune, 33-1; 7) Denis of Cork, 12-1; 8) Visionaire, 19-1; 9) El Gato Malo, 15-1; 10-T) Fierce Wind and Big Brown, both 6-1 in the field.

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