SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, Mar. 7, 2008--Last weekend it was Santa Anita. Tomorrow it’s the Big Easy, mon cher, otherwise known as Derby Day in New Orleans. The Grade 2 Louisiana Derby has attracted a field of nine, headed by the Risen Star star, Pyro. It’s clearly the deepest Kentucky Derby prep so far this year.

Although the race was drawn very early in the week, the linemaker wasted no time installing Steve Asmussen’s colt the 7-5 early line choice vs. G2 Jockey Club Stakes runnerup Blackberry Road, G2 Belmont Futurity winner Tale Of Ekati, undefeated California Derby winner Yankee Bravo and G1 Hopeful winner Majestic Warrior. And there’s an undefeated stablemate named J Be K, among others.

So, is the Louisiana Derby favorite vulnerable?

Yankee Bravo, a colt has no graded earnings, hasn’t faced this caliber and will be making his first start on a non-synthetic or turf surface. Trainer Patrick Gallagher has been handling him with extreme care, as if he’s something special, and Alex Solis, the only partner Yankee Bravo’s had since shipping across the pond, comes with the package. Considering the fact he’s chasing needed graded earnings, expect him to be wound tightly.

Then there’s Blackberry Road, trained by David Carroll, who has the undefeated Denis Of Cork on the Derby Trail as well. But this colt also needs graded cash, mostly because he’s been nothing if not unlucky. The deep-stretch runner has had tough trips in his last five starts beginning with last year’s Arlington Washington Futurity. In the Risen Star, every seam he attempted to split was slammed shut in his face. Robby Albarado, replacing fellow Cajun Calvin Borel, will try to work through the bad karma.

From a class perspective, Tale Of Ekati and Majestic Warrior are known quantities but each is making his season’s debut in a tough spot. While neither figures to be at tops for this, trainers Barclay Tagg and Bill Mott, respectively, know their colts must have a required level of fitness to compete in this company, but without risking future condition by asking their runners for too much, too soon.

To say both have chosen ambitious debut spots would be to understate the case, but each has trained very well at South Florida training centers known for getting horses fit and ready at first asking. Of the two, Tale Of Ekati appears a bit more advanced. The normally reticent Tagg expects his horse to run very well. But trainers, like presidential candidates, are adept at lowering expectations.

Mott is back on the Derby Trail with several candidates, only for the fifth time in his career. But the Hall of Famer knows his way around Louisville, having saddled more winners at Churchill Downs than anyone else. Majestic Warrior, not without bullet workouts in his own equine holster, will attempt to have fans recall the winning show he put on in last year’s Hopeful before an injury prevented him from doing the same in the Champagne that went to War Pass. By A.P. Indy from a Seeking The Gold mare, a blue-hen-in-training called Dream Supreme, the colt has Derby lineage.

But the Louisiana Derby remains Asmussen’s race to lose because he has two loaded guns at which to take aim at the $600,000 prize. The mighty Pyro has an uncoupled mate, J Be K, undefeated in two starts and breaking from an ideal position beside his more accomplished mate in the Fair Grounds gate. While his two victories came sprinting and his pedigree is on the short side, rest assured that J Be K is not just some rabbit Asmussen’s throwing to the pace wolves. This field had better not underestimate the controlling speed of this Louisiana Derby, and that includes Pyro. Whether that lead is easily gained depends on Tale Of Ekati’s level of freshness.

Based on his Risen Star alone, Pyro deserves his position at or near the top of most Kentucky Derby polls. He developed so well over the winter, further learning his trade by working with two older stablemates, one being reigning Horse of the Year Curlin. Resultantly, Pyro’s more relaxed and focused in his training than he was as a youngster. And all of it was on display in his three-year-old debut, a victory that was nothing short of sensational.

There are two more Kentucky Derby preps this weekend worthy of mention, also at a mile and a sixteenth; the G3 Gotham Stakes on the Aqueduct winter track and the G3 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows--even if the latter has been a better predictor of Preakness than Derby form.

The Gotham features undefeated New York-bred Giant Moon. The colt has been allowed to develop virtually on his own, trainer Rick Schosberg never tightening the screws in earnest until now. This will be a big test to determine whether this precocious sophomore can sit off rivals and be as effective, and whether he can handle a forecasted wet track.

The Northern California prep attracted a field of 10 headed by Nikki’sgoldensteed and Coast Guard, who ducked Colonel John and El Gato Malo in last Saturday’s Sham Stakes in favor of a softer spot at a shorter distance. Nikki’sgoldensteed won the Turf Paradise Derby last month by nearly six lengths and is based in SoCal with trainer Robert Hess. Coast Guard, second in the G2 Robert Lewis Memorial last time, is developing beautifully for trainer David Hofmans.

But there’s no mistaking that the main event will take place in the Crescent City, where the only thing Steve Asmussen may have to fear is himself.