Fitting that in the final Grade 1 of the classics' prep season, Pyro, virtually the consensus Kentucky Derby favorite since his Risen Star tour de force, will make his third start of the year as the even-money favorite in the day‘s biggest three-year-old event.
For trainer Steve Asmussen, things have gone very well under the bright lights of this young racing season. Horse of the Year Curlin won his prep for the Dubai World Cup then confirmed that preparation two weeks ago with the lengthiest victory in the history of the event.
Curlin's performance was so dream-like in fact that, according to published reports, rider Robbie Albarado returned to the winners' circle as if in a trance, the rocking-chair stretch run little more than a pleasant blur to the Cajun riding star.
For Pyro, a strong showing doesn't necessarily mean a winning one. What is not needed is an enervating effort at nine furlongs for a horse that already has sufficient foundation and experience with only three weeks remaining to the show.
Grade 1 placings as a juvenile and a pair of graded stakes victories at 3 give Pyro the luxury of needing only a workmanlike effort in his final prep, one that doesn't extract any more juice from the lemon than is necessary.
Even if this is his synthetic surface debut, he continues to train very well, including a recent sharp Polytrack blowout over the Blue Grass track. Owning Derby style and demonstrable class, no one will be shocked if he beats his 11 rivals without delivering his 'A' race. He just might be that good.
What Nick Zito's Cool Coal Man lacks in flashiness he makes up for in accomplishment. Another with no experience on synthetic surfaces, the 4-1 Blue Grass second-favorite is the only member of this group owning two nine-furlong wins. Further, he breaks from the rail position that is currently enjoying a two-turn success rate of 24 percent. As he showed at Gulfstream, Cool Coal Man has the tactical tools to take an advantage.
Like Pyro, Cool Coal Man needn't win the Blue Grass, only finish strongly enough to benefit from the effort and advance his Derby conditioning. His allowance win at Churchill Downs last fall also looks better now that runnerup Recapturetheglory has become a late developing Derby player.
Condition notwithstanding, there are talented horses that absolutely need a lion's share of the Blue Grass graded purse to qualify for a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate. Two, Cowboy Cal and Monba, are trained by Todd Pletcher, who, after nominating a total of 34 horses to this year's Triple Crown, might be down to these two in Louisville.
Cowboy Cal has earned excellent performance figures on grass, a surface that often transfers that form nicely to Polytrack. He owns no dirt victories but earnings come first so the Blue Grass for him is an imperative. While his dirt form is an unknown--as is that of likely Derby third choice Colonel John--his pedigree will relish every inch of the Derby's mile and a quarter.
Stablemate Monba has been living off the promise shown winning a Churchill Downs allowance race last fall and a subsequently troubled, strong-finish fourth and gallop out at the end of the Cash Call Futurity. He was nowhere in the Fountain of Youth when nearly cut down between rivals on the first turn, lucky to escape serious injury. Edgar Prado re-rides the surprising Fountain of Youth favorite.
Another only needing to run well is Big Truck. Some might argue that Atoned's disappointing Illinois Derby exposed him but the New York-bred continues to act like a “good horse.” He finished ahead of eventual Florida Derby runnerup in the Sam F. Davis prior to his Tampa Derby victory and has continued to work bullets since.
In order for Big Truck to run well, he must show some affinity for the nine furlong route. By the speed-oriented sire Hook And Ladder, his distance aptitude to date appears to have come from the influence of his grand-sire, Derby-winning Go for Gin.
Because of Hey Byrn, a mid-moving fourth in the Florida Derby, the Holy Bull will be interesting even if unlikely to produce a serious Derby horse. A victory by the early line favorite would flatter the undefeated Big Brown.
A full field of 14 at Oaklawn Park might produce a prospect or two, the connections of a close-finish contender encouraged by the recent Kentucky Derby success of Arkansas Derby victors. Asmussen will start three of the 14.
But most Derby eyes will be on the Blue Grass and Pyro, and whether his dream prep season will continue to give him star billing for the 90-mile van ride from Lexington. However, one never knows when a pothole could run a well-oiled machine right off the road that leads to Louisville.