NEW ORLEANS -- Trainer Steve Asmussen stood outside Pyro's stall at his Fair Grounds barn on Wednesday morning, admiring the best of his three prospects for this year's Kentucky Derby. Asmussen probably was a little envious, too. There was Pyro, the buzz horse of this year's Derby preps, getting heavy lidded as he prepared to doze off following his morning routine. Asmussen, only days removed from a trip halfway around the world and back, and with his top assistant remaining in Dubai, had no such time to lay about.
These are heady days for Asmussen. Curlin, last year's Horse of the Year, is with assistant Scott Blasi in Dubai, where Asmussen traveled last week for Curlin's prep for the March 29 Dubai World Cup. Asmussen jetted right home, taking up a full day Friday, including the 10-hour time difference, because the next two weeks here in the United States are important, too.
On Saturday here at Fair Grounds, Asmussen will saddle both Pyro, the Risen Star winner, and the unbeaten J Be K in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby. And a week later, he will send out Z Fortune, the Risen Star runner-up, in the Grade 3, $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. This all comes a year after Curlin finished third in the Derby, then won the Preakness and was second in the Belmont for Asmussen.
Asmussen is becoming a regular on the Triple Crown chase, graduating from the days of Fifty Stars to having a horse like Curlin. Or, as Asmussen put it, "Something I thought was a Derby horse, and something that is."
But Asmussen discounts the idea that the experience gleaned with those horses will give him an edge this year.
"Every year is a unique opportunity," Asmussen said. "If Curlin was running in the Derby, then it would help you with him. But if Derby experience helped you, why is the drop-off with trainers so significant? We're the flavor of the month. We're just very fortunate to be in this spot.
"Last year's experience taught me that you need a lot of things to go right. Not only does your horse need to be good enough, but you have to be extremely fortunate."
Pyro, owned by Ron Winchell, is at or near the top of anyone's list of leading Derby contenders. After finishing second to War Pass in both the Champagne Stakes and Breeders' Cup Juvenile to close 2007, Pyro began this year with a breathtaking last-to-first rush in the Risen Star.
"It was confirmation of what he is - a lot of horse to stay on the journey," Asmussen said. "He has matured quite a bit since the first of the year. Working with Curlin aided him in paying attention. He was playful before, good feeling. The change that I noticed was that after a couple of breezes with Curlin, it helped him focus more."
Pyro drew post 3 in a field of nine for the Louisiana Derby. The 1 1/16-mile race is the deepest Derby prep race to date, featuring six members of the Derby Watch top 25, including Pyro.
One of those six is J Be K, who sprinted to victory against maidens last summer at Saratoga for trainer Bob Baffert, sprinted into Asmussen's barn last month when owner Ahmed Zayat pulled his West Coast runners out of California, and then sprinted to victory in an allowance race here on Feb. 15. The Louisiana Derby will be his first race around two turns.
"He's a brilliantly fast horse with a tremendous amount of ability," Asmussen said. "They won't catch him - if he stays. And you know when you know they can stay? When they've done it."
Z Fortune, like J Be K, is owned by Zayat. He won his first three starts, including this track's Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 12, before running second to his stablemate in the Risen Star.
"I think he's progressed beautifully," Asmussen said. "He's a stronger horse than he was even three weeks ago."
Asmussen sent Z Fortune to Oaklawn on Tuesday, 11 days before the Rebel.
"He's a big, leggy horse," Asmussen said. "He's still young. I want him to have confidence on that track, so I want him to have his final work there. He and Pyro are at different stages mentally. Pyro, we were fortunate to have a good 2-year-old year with him, then he returned to us and came right on. We've had to go right along with Z Fortune. He has no idea how good he's going to be."
In other Derby developments:
* Two members of the Derby Watch top 25, Giant Moon and Visionaire, are among those scheduled to run on Saturday in the Grade 3, $250,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
* The only other race of significance this week is the Grade 3, $150,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows on Saturday, which drew a field of 10, topped by Coast Guard and Nikk'sgoldensteed. Like the Louisiana Derby, both the Gotham and the El Camino Real are at 1 1/16 miles.
* Into Mischief, the CashCall Futurity winner, will be out of training for 10 days to two weeks after getting abscesses cut out of both front feet, trainer Richard Mandella said Wednesday. Into Mischief was second in the San Vicente Stakes last month to Georgie Boy.
* Georgie Boy will retain jockey Rafael Bejarano for next week's Grade 2, $200,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. But, according to trainer Kathy Walsh, Bejarano is scheduled to be out of town on April 5, the date of the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, so Walsh said she may need a new rider that day.
* Trainer Bill Mott on Wednesday said Court Vision, the third-place finisher in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, is under consideration for either the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 29, the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5, or the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on April 12 at Keeneland for his next start. All three are Grade 1 races at 1 1/8 miles.
* Monba, who finished last as the favorite in the Fountain of Youth, not only cut his right hind foot in the race, but also pulled a gluteal muscle, trainer Todd Pletcher said Wednesday. Pletcher said "time is probably not on our side" to make the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park on March 22, but said that race remains a slight possibility. More likely, though, Monba will await the Blue Grass, a race that also may end up being the final Derby prep for both Pyro and Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man.
- additional reporting by David Grening and Mike Welsch
El Gato Malo finished a close second in the Sham Stakes on Saturday and saw his odds dip from last week's 15-1 to 12-1, the same price as Sham winner Colonel John, on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. The only new horse among the Derby Watch's top 25 this week is not new at all. Yankee Bravo got squeezed off the list last week to make room for Fountain of Youth runner-up Elysium Fields. But the removal of Into Mischief from the list this week allowed Yankee Bravo a chance to get back on. Watchmaker pegged him at 60-1.
Into Mischief, the CashCall Futurity winner, had abscesses cut out of both front feet this week and will miss 10 days to two weeks of training, according to trainer Richard Mandella. With time running out as the May 3 Kentucky Derby nears, Into Mischief will miss the San Felipe on March 17, and plans after that are uncertain. As a result, he was removed from the list.
ON THE BUBBLE
Hey Byrn, who has scored runaway victories at Gulfstream Park in his last two starts, just missed getting on the list this week. Also worth watching are Big Brown, who was a dazzling winner on Wednesday at Gulfstream, and Nistle's Crunch, another sharp allowance winner this past week at Gulfstream. The Gotham at Aqueduct and the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows - both this Saturday - could yield additional candidates. Roman Emperor and Saratoga Russell are expected to go in the Gotham, and Nikki'sgoldensteed is pointed to the El Camino Real.
- Jay Privman