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Pyro on fast track to Derby
By Jeffrey McMurray | Associated Press
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Published: 4/9/2008 12:09 AM

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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It's 11 a.m., lunch time at trainer Steve Asmussen's barn at Keeneland. As less-famous horses use loud grunts and violent kicks to demand they be fed next, their celebrity stablemate Pyro quietly waits his turn.

He's like that on the racetrack, too.

Asmussen says the 3-year-old colt known for his stunning finishes always devours each meal, including a 4 a.m. breakfast and 5 p.m. dinner. But while the horse has the appetite, pedigree and racing credentials of a leading Kentucky Derby contender, he seldom shows much aggression or ego -- at least until it's time.

"He's developed nicely, matured nicely," said Asmussen, who also trained Curlin, the 2007 horse of the year and this year's winner of the $6 million Dubai World Cup. "He's been very professional on the racetrack, a good feeler in the barn. He's definitely a horse that's easy to handle, easy to be around. He's shown a lot of respect for his job."

That job is to try to do something Curlin wasn't able to pull off -- win the Derby. But first comes one last prep, the Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday on Keeneland's Polytrack, where Pyro is expected to be the favorite. A win would make him one of the favorites to take the Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs.

Shaun Bridgmohan, Pyro's regular rider, said he has seldom seen a horse improve so much, so quickly.

"The transition period from a 2-year-old to a 3-year-old, he's made it very well," Bridgmohan said. "You get on those young horses and always have high hopes for them. He actually panned out the way I thought he would."

In two starts this year, both victories, Pyro has shown finishing speed that even Asmussen didn't expect. Especially impressive was his victory Feb. 9 in the Risen Star Stakes, in which he soared from last in the field to a comfortable 2-length victory at the end.

David Fiske, farm manager at Corinthia, a 320-acre, family-owned horse farm in Lexington where Pyro was born, said that race made him understand this horse is even more special than he realized.

"We'd always thought he was good," Fiske said. "Then you turn for home and you're last, so a lot of thoughts race through your mind. We couldn't have been that wrong. What happened? Did he get hurt? Then he wins. It's not the way it was scripted."

Last month, Pyro used a similar comeback to take the Louisiana Derby. Since arriving at Keeneland thereafter, he has worked out in the predawn hours each Monday and explored the surroundings.

On Saturday, he walked to the paddock with several other horses on their way to a race. As they hit the track, Pyro stayed behind, studying each tree.

"He'll do whatever you ask him to do," jockey Dominic Terry said after riding Pyro during a recent workout. "When he runs, he can get himself out of trouble. Really classy as a 3-year-old, very mature."

One of only five colts in a 2005 crop by Pulpit and out of Wild Vision, Pyro provides the best hope of a Derby victory for the Winchells, a longtime racing family that owns Corinthia and a 154-year-old mansion with red bricks and white pillars that sits on the property.

Since primary owner Verne Winchell's death in 2002, the thoroughbred racing business has passed on to Winchell's wife, Joan, and son, Ron, both of whom live in Las Vegas but visit the mansion several times a year.

The family has had several starters in the Kentucky Derby, including Zanjero last year, but its highest finish so far was Classic Go Go's fourth-place showing in 1981.

Fiske, who helped deliver Pyro, acknowledges he was no miracle horse, destined to be a champion from his early days as a yearling. But, his development -- and cooperation with those trying to train him -- make him believe this could be the one.

"He was remarkable for being unremarkable," Fiske said. "That seems to be the way a lot of them are. The good ones tend to take care of themselves, tend to be good-doers. They're not the ones that tend to get injured or sick or that you have to put back together."

Asmussen, however, remains cautious in predicting big things for his latest 3-year-old star.

"He hasn't run a race to this point that is good enough to win the Derby," Asmussen said. "But we also think he's in position to move forward. It'll all be timing and fortunate circumstances."