Monday, March 10, 2008

Much Ado About Pyro

To date, we've seen exactly 4 horses that have looked impressive on the road to the Kentucky Derby:

(1) Big Brown, the horribly named steed who trounced an off-the-turf allowance field to beat some overmatched dirt foes and run his record to 2-for-2. I think he's a world of talent, but he'll be making his third and final start before the Derby in the Florida Derby, and history says that it's just folly to bet a horse in the Derby off 3 races.

(2) War Pass, the 2-year-old champ, who cruised in his return this year against a bunch of three-legged nags, and is brutally fast but brutally underbred to hit the distance.

(3) Colonel John, who ran painfully slow on a synthetic surface in California last month.

(4) Pyro, who's the main reason for this essay. A well-bred son of Pulpit, Pyro won his inaugural start last year, then finished 3rd in an allowance race (won by War Pass) when he bobbled coming out of the gate. He was sent off at an absurd 33-1 in the Champagne Stakes, where he ran a hard charging 2nd to War Pass, and then ran 2nd again to War Pass in the BC Juvenile, though he never remotely threatened the winner.

This year, Pyro's had a pair of victories in Louisiana, his out-of-the-clouds win in the Risen Star, and his tough but well-earned victory in Saturday's Louisiana Derby. (Links are to videos of the races.) And they're both visually quite impressive. There's just two enormous problems with both of those races:

--Pyro has yet to beat a horse of consequence. This is sort of a self-fulfilling problem, as in a year where nobody's looked great, you obviously can't beat great looking horses, but in the Risen Star, there were precisely zero horses that are serious Derby contenders (sorry, fans of Blackberry Road). In the LA Derby, both Tale of Ekati and Majestic Warrior were coming off long layoffs and did nothing, and J Be K was awful. The rest of the field stunk.

--More importantly, Pyro's running times are slow. Indeed, on both days, he ran the same distance as a good 3-year old filly, and ran slower than the winner of the gal's race both times. You can debate that the slow pace in either race was a contributing factor, but the fact he hasn't hit a 100 Gowanus Speed Figure this year is damning.

What to make of this? Steve Crist has rightly compared him to Scat Daddy, a horse that I noted last year plateaued badly in speed figures, and was nowhere to be found on Derby Day. The problem is that there are no real appealing options at this point in the Derby hunt, unless you want to get on the bandwagon of the breeding-deprived War Pass or the upside of Big Brown.

My early prediction? We may be looking at a Derby like 2004, where War Pass (much like Smarty Jones) simply wins a lackluster affair by virtue of his natural speed where none of the other horses have the talent to keep up with him for 9 furlongs, and he can eke out the final 220 yards. That may win the Derby and the Preakness. But come Belmont time, look for a distance-bred steed like Tale of Ekati, Visionaire or the stout filly Country Star to take him down, much like Birdstone in 2004.

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