MARCH 14, 2008
by Dick Powell
For various reasons it took me a long time last year to get on Curlin's (Smart Strike) bandwagon. Taking him away from Helen Pitts, some of the connections' legal problems and running in different silks distracted me from the obvious: Curlin is a great horse.
For different reasons I am still not on the PYRO (Pulpit) bandwagon. But, I'm getting closer to climbing aboard. In the Risen Star S. (G3), Pyro lagged behind a slow pace and exploded in the stretch with a sub 23-second last quarter to win going away. Yes, it was visually impressive, but I thought a bit of a fluke in that he's unlikely to run into a similar pace scenario.
In last Saturday's Louisiana Derby (G2), Pyro was sent off as the 4-5 favorite despite facing a very strong field. Unlike in the Risen Star, Shaun Bridgmohan kept him nearer the pace while settling into fourth place. From there, he settled very professionally and showed the cruising speed he'll need on the first Saturday in May.
Local horse My Pal Charlie (Indian Charlie) had the lead through a first half in :48.07 and six furlongs in 1:13.86. J Be K (Silver Deputy) tracked him in second and Robby Albarado had Blackberry Road (Gone West) closer to the pace than usual in third.
With no major moves coming from the back of the pack, Pyro was content to wait. When Blackberry Road and Majestic Warrior (A.P. Indy) made their moves on the outside approaching the top of the stretch, Bridgmohan waited patiently with nowhere to run. When J Be K finally moved away from My Pal Charlie approaching the eighth-pole, the hole opened and Pyro shot through it. Within five strides, the Louisiana Derby was over and Pyro was on his way to a three-length victory over a very game My Pal Charlie. Yankee Bravo (Yankee Gentleman) rallied from dead last to get third, and Blackberry Road was a no-excuse fourth.
Majestic Warrior's wide rally flattened out in the drive and he backed up to seventh. J Be K, like many of the Zayat-owned horses, was ambitiously placed and finished next to last. Tale of Ekati (Tale of the Cat), fourth in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), had a rough start and did little to finish sixth. With time running out, it will be interesting to see what trainer Barclay Tagg does with him. Unhappy with his training over the winter, he was rushed into the Louisiana Derby and the question is did he get enough out of Saturday's effort to move forward to his final Derby prep.
Pyro has now answered just about every question except two. First, he was not able to handle War Pass (Cherokee Run) in three attempts last year and has he matured enough to do it this year? Second, he still has not run terribly fast in his two starts this year. The 96 BRIS Speed rating that he earned in the Risen Star was due to the slow early pace but last Saturday he only earned a 100. He covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.44, which was slower than the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2).
In boxing terms, Pyro is a counter-puncher. He responds to what the other horses are doing but doesn't dictate his own circumstances. Until we see him in the Kentucky Derby (G1), where against a large field he'll get a fast pace, we won't know how he'll respond.
The old axiom in racing is to bet the speed horse in a match race. The horse that can go to the front has a huge advantage and the history of match races proves this. Saturday's Fair Grounds Oaks was supposed to be a match race between undefeated champion Indian Blessing (Indian Charlie) and PROUD SPELL (Proud Citizen). With Indian Blessing's superior gate speed, she should have had a major advantage in a race that only attracted two other entrants that were clearly running for the minor awards.
At the start, Garrett Gomez sent Indian Blessing to the lead through a first quarter in a pokey :24.53. Gabriel Saez kept in contact with Proud Spell and was only a length behind. They picked it up a bit with a :23.64 second quarter, and Gomez kept Indian Blessing far off the rail in an effort to get her to relax. Saez turned up the pressure around the far turn with a third quarter in :24.63, and Gomez had to let it out another notch on Indian Blessing.
They turned for home and Gomez put Indian Blessing on the rail. Saez had Proud Spell off it, and it looked for a moment that Indian Blessing would hang on again like she did in the Silverbulletday S. (G3) last out. But Proud Spell kept putting the pressure on, and inside the eighth-pole Indian Blessing ran out of gas, with Proud Spell going on to a 2 1/4-length victory. It was Indian Blessing's first defeat in six starts and after the race trainer Bob Baffert indicated that he might rest her long enough that she could miss the Kentucky Oaks (G1).
Proud Spell has been a gallant filly while taking on all comers. She has ducked nobody and came away with a well-earned victory. She covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.01 and earned a BRIS Speed rating of 102, a couple of ticks faster than Pyro and her fastest yet. Even though Indian Blessing fell apart in the final furlong, Proud Spell had to do all the work chasing her. With only two starts this year, she's still improving and Larry Jones showed last year that he can get horses ready for big races.
My Kentucky Derby selection last year was CIRCULAR QUAY (Thunder Gulch) and he was quite a disappointment. Yes, he was sixth of 20 runners, but he never threatened at all and didn't win a race the rest of the year.
This year, Todd Pletcher had him debut in a seven-furlong sprint and he was an even fifth in good time. With blinkers added for the first time and a return to the track where he won last year's Louisiana Derby, you could make a case for him in the New Orleans H. (G2) last Saturday.
The 4-5 favorite was Grasshopper (Dixie Union), winner of the Mineshaft H. (G3) last out, but his race dramatically changed when Silver Lord (Unbridled's Song) unseated his rider Corey Lanerie. Expected to be a pace factor, Silver Lord's misfortune turned out to be Grasshopper's as he inherited a lead that he didn't want.
Albarado tried to keep Grasshopper relaxed, but Edgar Prado tried to put some pressure on him aboard Magna Graduate (Honor Grades). Gomez had Circular Quay much closer to the pace while saving ground on the rail. Around the far turn, he made his move three wide and looked like he was going to swoop by to an easy win.
Grasshopper at one time looked to be close to a length behind in deep stretch but began to fight back. Circular Quay's lead began to shrink with each stride, but the wire came in time and he held on to a neck win over Grasshopper. His final time for the nine furlongs was 1:49.80 and he earned a Speed rating of 103. We knew already that he could rally from far behind, and now with blinkers, he was able to run closer to the pace and still had his stretch punch.
Grasshopper wound up being the stalkee instead of the stalker and he showed great courage fighting back in the stretch. It was a game effort on his part -- he gave three pounds to the winner -- and in the capable training hands of Neil Howard he should be a major factor in the handicap ranks this year.
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