Steve Asmussen is set for another enjoyable ride along the Kentucky Derby trail, and this time the trainer starts out with the early lead thanks to his rising star Pyro -- and a few other promising 3-year-olds.
Pyro made a smashing seasonal debut in the appropriately named Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, roaring from last at the top of the stretch to a 2-length victory over stablemate Z Fortune.
A year ago, Asmussen guided Curlin through a thrilling Triple Crown campaign -- third in the Derby, first in the Preakness and second in the Belmont Stakes -- en route to Horse of the Year honors. Curlin, though, didn't make his first career start until Feb. 3, 2007, while Pyro already is a well-seasoned thoroughbred.
The son of Pulpit proved it in the 1 1/16th-mile Risen Star, overtaking 10 rivals for his second win in five races. His two runner-up finishes were against unbeaten War Pass in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Champagne Stakes.
After Saturday's race in which Pyro made up 8½ lengths in the final quarter mile, Pyro opens at No. 1 in The Associated Press' Run to the Roses Top 10 list of Derby contenders.
"He's a tremendous horse," Asmussen said. "How good is he? He's good enough to do what we just watched. He accelerated home."
Pyro may have an advantage over most promising 3-year-olds for now -- the colt has been working in the company of Curlin. "Guess his workmate did the job, huh?" Asmussen added.
Z Fortune, meanwhile, was 3-for-3 and led midway through the stretch of the Risen Star before being overtaken by Pyro.
"He was halfway idling when he made the lead," Z Fortune's rider Garrett Gomez said. "I think the longer distances will definitely help this colt."
Also among Asmussen's dozen Triple Crown nominees is Kodiak Kowboy, third in the BC Juvenile and a winner in four of seven races.
Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia set the early future wagering Friday, with the mutuel field of all other 3-year-olds nominated listed as the 5-2 favorite over 23 separate betting choices. Court Vision, Pyro and War Pass were next, each listed at 12-1.
The first of three betting pools closed Sunday night.
A total of 449 3-year-olds were nominated for the Derby, Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, with Todd Pletcher leading all trainers with 31 nominees. Nick Zito, who trains No. 2 War Pass, has 19 nominees, with West Coast-based Richard Mandella next with 14, including Robert Lewis Stakes winner Crown of Thorns and Into Mischief, winner of the CashCall Futurity.
Last year, the early No. 1 choice was trainer Barclay Tagg's Nobiz Like Shobiz, who won the Wood Memorial, finished 10th in the Derby and then made a successful switch to the grass. Derby winner Street Sense opened last year at No. 2 on the list.
1. Pyro (trainer, Steve Asmussen; jockey, Shaun Bridgmohan): Sensational last-to-first effort to win Risen Star. ... Runner-up in Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Champagne, now has 2 wins in 5 starts. ... Next start: Louisiana Derby (Fair Grounds, March 8). ... Derby future wager odds (as of Friday): 12-1.
2. War Pass (Nick Zito, Cornelio Velasquez): BC Juvenile winner gearing up for seasonal debut. ... 2-year-old champion worked 4 furlongs in 47.60 at Palm Meadows on Saturday. ... Next start: Gulfstream allowance (February). ... Odds: 12-1.
3. Majestic Warrior (Bill Mott, Garrett Gomez): Training well in Florida following ankle problem last year. ... Hopeful winner co-owned by Yankees boss George Steinbrenner. ... 3-year-old debut could come around March 1. ... Next start: Undecided. ... Odds: 15-1.
4. Tale of Ekati (Barclay Tagg, Eibar Coa): Best of Tagg's Derby prospects with 2 wins in 4 starts, including Belmont Futurity. ... Working smartly at Palm Meadows for 3-year-old debut. ... Next start: Louisiana Derby. ... Odds: 20-1.
5. Court Vision (Mott, Julien Leparoux): Won Remsen in last start to improve to 3-for-4, his only loss by a half-length in his first race. ... Worked 5 furlongs in 1:02.20 Wednesday at Payson Park. ... Next start: Fountain of Youth (Gulfstream, Feb. 24). ... Odds: 12-1.
6. Z Fortune (Asmussen, Gomez): Won Lecomte by 2¾ lengths before running second in Risen Star. ... Owned by Zayat Stables, which leads all owners with 11 Triple Crown nominees. ... Next start: Louisiana Derby. ... Odds: 20-1.
7. Anak Nakal (Zito, Leparoux): Won Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill in last start Nov. 24. ... Worked 6 furlongs in 1:14.40 at Palm Meadows on Saturday. ... Next start: Fountain of Youth. ... Odds: 20-1.
8. Cowboy Cal (Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez): Has won 3 in a row since career-opening defeat. ... Won Laurel Futurity and Tropical Park Derby, same turf races Barbaro won en route to 2006 Derby win. ... Pointing to final prep in Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 12. ... Next start: Undecided. ... Odds: 20-1.
9: El Gato Malo (Craig Dollase, David Flores): Tough call since he's 3-for-3, all on synthetic surface. ... Won San Rafael by 6¾ lengths. ... Next start: Sham (Santa Anita, March 1). ... Odds: 15-1.
10. Crown of Thorns (Richard Mandella, Victor Espinoza): Won Robert Lewis by 2½ lengths on Feb. 2 for second win in 3 starts. ... Final prep set for Santa Anita Derby on April 5. ... Next start: Sham. ... Odds: 20-1.
Keep An Eye On: Big Truck, Colonel John, Giant Moon, Into Mischief, Monba, Z Humor.