Kentucky Derby hopeful Z Fortune gets a bath by groom Geraldo Morales at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Monday. Pyro, another Steve Asmussen trained horse, is also entered in Saturday's race.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The track was dry, the air was cool and Pyro and Z Fortune had just completed their final workouts before Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
All systems were go Monday for trainer Steve Asmussen, who will saddle two Derby starters for the third year in a row in his quest to win the Run for the Roses.
"You want their focus to be what it needs to be," he said outside his barn at Churchill Downs. "You want them to be confident and relaxed enough to get the job done."
So far, so good. Both 3-year-old colts looked sharp during their half-mile breezes. Pyro, the more playful of the two, covered the distance in 49.80 seconds; Z Fortune, the laid-back one, went in 51.00.
An early Derby favorite after winning the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby, Pyro needs to rebound off the worst race of his career. The dark bay colt ran 10th in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, Pyro's first -- and likely last -- experience on Polytrack. Z Fortune is coming off the toughest race of his career, a runner-up effort in the Arkansas Derby despite a wide trip.
"I feel good about how they are both doing physically," Asmussen said. "Saying that, we know how much fortune has to go our way for either one of them to have success."
Pyro and Z Fortune weren't Asmussen's only Derby horses on the track Monday. Horse of the Year Curlin, who finished third in last year's Derby, made his first appearance since winning the Dubai World Cup in March.
"Just running him to get back in rhythm, and to see how much the Dubai trip took out of him," Asmussen said. "We're three weeks, a month from knowing exactly where we're at."
Asmussen will know in a few days where he's at with Pyro and Z Fortune.
"They know the lights are on, and that they are racehorses, and this is the time," Asmussen said. "Our goal with both is to have them run their lifetime best race when it matters most. At this point, this is it."
The 42-year-old Asmussen has become a regular on the Derby trail, and is moving closer to his first victory. The best of his first three starters was Fifty Stars, who ran ninth in 2001. Two years ago, he sent out Storm Treasure (11th) and Private Vow (15th). Last year, Zanjero ran 12th, with Curlin an impressive third in just the fourth race of his career.
Curlin then won the Preakness, finished a close second to the filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes and took the Breeders' Cup Classic. With more than $8.8 million in earnings, the colt is close to breaking Cigar's record of $9,999,815.
Asmussen wants the mark, and says he's thankful for the chance to campaign Curlin another year.
"His legacy is in our hands," he said. "This is a horse capable of amazing things, and I'm very proud of the opportunity to showcase it."
His attention, though, is on the 1¼-mile Derby, where Pyro could be one of the favorites along with unbeaten Florida Derby winner Big Brown and Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John.
The post position draw is Wednesday, with a full field of 20 3-year-olds expected. If more are entered, preference is given to horses with the most graded stakes earnings.
Shaun Bridgmohan will be back aboard Pyro, while Curlin's regular rider, Robby Albarado, has the call on Z Fortune.
Asmussen and Bridgmohan agree Pyro was a different horse in the Blue Grass on a synthetic surface.
"He didn't give me that effort I know he has (on dirt)," Bridgmohan said. "I didn't get that same feeling like I did in his prior starts. I don't see any reason he shouldn't come back and redeem himself."
After the Blue Grass, assistant trainer Scott Blasi spoke with Asmussen, who was in Arkansas for Z Fortune's race. Pyro's postrace behavior was the major topic.
"If he had dropped his head and fretted, I'd be a lot more concerned," Asmussen said. "But he's taken his defeat, and he's willing to try again. It's a very important thing how a horse at this level takes something like that."
Earlier this year, Pyro worked in company with Curlin. After the Blue Grass, Pyro's first workout was in company with the stakes winner Noonmark, another Asmussen-trained horse.
"For him to work three-quarters with Noonmark, an exceptional workhorse and solid sprinter, it's an indication he's moving forward," Asmussen said of Pyro's breeze at Keeneland on April 21.
So what's left until Derby day?
"State of mind and comfort," the trainer said. "They either are ready or they aren't."