It took just over 22 seconds to send my mind into scurry. From last-to-first, 2008 Kentucky Derby contender Pyro went from hopelessly beaten in last Saturday's Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds to an express train headed straight for Louisville.
As someone who has studied the Triple Crown and its trail for the past 20 years -- and I don't mean followed it, but studied it -- I can honestly say that few moments have meant as much instantly as watching the Steve Asmussen-trained Pyro motor through the lane in New Orleans.
Could his performance have been the singular-best effort I've studied on the road to Louisville in the past two decades? Before the horses even finished galloping out, that's the type of dilemma that danced in my mind. It was a signature "wow" performance, and very few of those happen this time of year.
A few factors stand out in Pyro's Risen Star effort to define its brilliance:
Obviously, his final quarter-mile in an estimated :22.30 -- digitally measured by ESPN television analyst Randy Moss -- rates as eye-popping. Horses don't often run the first quarter-mile of a 1 1/16-miles race that fast, much less the last.
Secondly, horses simply don't rally last-to-first very often against good competition when the early pace is slow and easy on the front-runners. After three-quarters of a mile in 1:14.60, you might expect the late-running Pyro to be able to reel in four or five of his rivals, but not blow by all 10 rivals, some of which were proven stakes commodities.
Finally, and it can't be underestimated, Pyro had not raced since his runner-up performance Oct. 27 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a span of 105 days. Trainer Asmussen admitted his colt was behind schedule early in his seasonal preparations and unlikely to even make the Risen Star starting gate. Tough morning sparring sessions in the previous three weeks with stablemate and reigning Horse of the Year Curlin obviously helped reduce the curve.
The beauty in this performance is that it only took a quarter-mile's worth of starch out of the newly-minted Kentucky Derby Winter Book favorite, whose odds dropped this week to 8-to-1 at the Wynn Las Vegas. On first impression, the effort reminds me of just a season ago, when come-backing Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Street Sense set the 1-1/16 miles track record in the Tampa Bay Derby in his first start of the year, cruising early before rocketing home late in a memorable stretch drive with Any Given Saturday.
That was a race Street Sense, like Pyro a year later, had no business winning -- much less setting the track record at a distance run almost every race day for the past six decades at Tampa Bay Downs. Obviously, the quarter-mile sprint home at Tampa did little to flatten the sails of Street Sense, who by May was draped in roses while being bear-hugged by a jubilant Calvin Borel.
It's very difficult to rank the best prep races over a span of time, because prep races, many times, are just that -- preparations for something else down the road. They mean something different to every horseman, every rider and every owner. But I do think you can try and quantify which prep races have left you with the biggest impression over the years, the most memorable. They're the ones you won't ever forget for you know you have just witnessed a special performance.
Pyro's Risen Star effort certainly resides on Memory Lane for me. Among the other most memorable Triple Crown prep races (alphabetically) over the past 20 years for me include:
Afleet Alex's 2005 Arkansas Derby
Hampered by what trainer Tim Ritchey called a lung infection in the Rebel, Afleet Alex responded by crushing a solid field that included eventual Travers winner Flower Alley and Queen's Plate hero Wild Desert by eight lengths, then ranking as the largest winning margin in the 71-year history of the race. It's difficult to match another horse in the past two decades on the Triple Crown scene who had the visual brilliance in his stride of Afleet Alex.
Barbaro's 2006 Florida Derby
The newly configured Gulfstream Park racetrack had been a rude host to horses drawing outside posts in two-turn races (just 2-for-48 from posts 8 and out at that point in the meeting). So, when the undefeated, Maryland-based Barbaro looked to solidify his dirt credentials on a fast track for the first time, the deck was stacked squarely against him from post 10. Racing four-wide on the first turn, he lost much ground as anticipated and aggressively tackled classy sprinter Sharp Humor five furlongs from home. Despite a stride noticeably built for turf racing, Barbaro's piston-like barrage through the lane forged him past his rival in the final few jumps and sent him to his crowning day in Louisville still unbeaten.
Bellamy Road's 2005 Wood Memorial
Few Grade 1 races have ever been dominated in such fashion, as Nick Zito's relatively unknown allowance runner made a 17-1/2 length mockery of his first stakes test. Going back 100 years in Kentucky Derby past performances, I could not find another horse who ever won his final Derby prep by such a margin, topping the 15-length drubbing Arts and Letters posted in the 1969 Blue Grass. Bellamy Road's time of 1:47.16 equaled Aqueduct's 1-1/8 miles track record, though the post-script to his career would eventually show Bellamy Road as a one-hit wonder. But it's a hit that will be memorably sung for years.
Curlin's 2007 Rebel
While the Arkansas Derby stamped him a superstar, it was the Rebel three weeks prior that introduced racing's newest superstar to the masses. Curlin had just won his debut by 12-plus lengths at Gulfstream and was sold for a seven-figure sum that had everyone wondering, "Who the heck is this horse?" Though he had never been around two turns or faced winners, Curlin blew past the field four- to five-wide on the far turn and let everyone with two eyeballs know exactly who he might become.
Easy Goer's 1989 Gotham
You can't say Easy Goer without saying "New York's" Easy Goer, as the two went hand-in-hand. While the Gotham certainly was not one of his biggest career scores, those would come in races like the Belmont and Travers, his electrifying mile in 1:32-2/5 took a full second off of Secretariat's stakes record and almost a full second off of the track record. He was only a tick off Dr. Fager's world record time, set in 1968, while winning in a 13-length canter.
Hansel's 1991 Jim Beam
Even though the track had been playing extremely fast (the 1 1/16-miles track record was set earlier on the card), Hansel's 1:46-3/5 performance for 1 1/8 miles dropped jaws as the Frankie Brothers trainee demolished the former Turfway Park mark, set by '89 Beam winner Western Playboy, by a whopping 2-2/5 seconds (1:49). Turning for home, it was a legendary rider's scrum across the track with Hall of Famers Chris McCarron (aboard the speedy California raider Apollo), Pat Day (between horses on favored Richman) and Jerry Bailey (piloting Hansel) locking up. Hansel powered home through the lane and went on to win two-thirds of the Triple Crown.
Mister Frisky's 1990 Santa Anita Derby
The Puerto Rican legend had taken the West Coast by storm in the spring of '90, and by the time the Santa Anita Derby had arrived, Mister Frisky was a perfect 15-for-15 lifetime. Angel Cordero was determined to take the race to the favorite aboard the D. Wayne Lukas-trained speedball Real Cash, but Gary Stevens did not back down on Mister Frisky. He went after Cordero more than five furlongs from the wire, and put his star mount into one of the most sustained displays of speed you'll see in a major race. The opposition wasn't special, but this colt surely was: perfection makes memories.
Monarchos' 2001 Florida Derby
Though he did beat eventual Kentucky Derby runner-up Invisible Ink, Monarchos' Florida Derby won't be remembered as an all-star cast. It will, however, live on in mental replays because of the John Ward trainee's incredible move on the far turn, one that compared to Arazi's 1991 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Monarchos passed 10 horses on the final bend like they were standing still and powered home in a commanding victory that would proper him to roses in May.
Private Terms' 1988 Wood Memorial
Undefeated in six prior starts and with then-super jockey Chris Antley aboard, the Maryland-based Private Terms beat what I consider the strongest Wood Memorial cast of the past 20 years. With a determined effort in a blazing 1:47-1/5 for nine panels, he beat, are you ready for this: Seeking the Gold, Brian's Time, Dynaformer, Tejano and Sewickley among others. For someone who grew up watching the Maryland circuit first-hand, this one will always ring in my mind.
Risen Star's 1988 Louisiana Derby
While his daddy, Secretariat, rates as horse racing's ultimate measuring stick, and whose Belmont Stakes win is the singular race all others chase in pursuit of "the greatest," Risen Star may be every bit the comparative tool when it comes to the history of his home base at Fair Grounds. All great races in New Orleans draw reviews to Risen Star, who raced partly in charity for a group of nuns and carried the hopes of all racing fans as perhaps being his daddy's successor. He rallied nearly last to first in the Louisiana Derby, with the field running the last 2 1/2 furlongs in :31-1/5 and 'Star' making up several lengths, sending a chaotic celebration among his connections, co-owner Ronnie Lemarque and co-owner/trainer Louie Roussel. (Note: Pyro closed several lengths in less than :30-flat in last week's performance, a race named after the one and only Risen Star.)
Skip Away's 1996 Blue Grass
Blowing away a field that included the eventual Preakness (Louis Quatorze) and Belmont Stakes (Editor's Note) champions, Skip Away ran one of the most dominating Derby preps of the 1990s. His massive stride just pulverized the ground below him in the lane as he widened with every stride in 1:47-1/5 despite an off track. It was one of those performances that, if you were a fan of other Derby contenders, you knew you had your work cut out for you in three weeks.
Smarty Jones' 2004 Arkansas Derby
Saddled with a rugged post No. 10 assignment, the undefeated Pennsylvania-bred erased all doubts I had about him with a performance that put him into the favorite's role in Kentucky. He broke like a shot along with eventual Grade 1 Cigar Mile winner Purge, but showed his true classics potential by slowing down the backstretch and not running off with Stewart Elliott. The win put him on track for a $5 million Centennial Season bonus offered by Oaklawn, which he would secure three weeks later by winning the Kentucky Derby.
Street Sense's 2007 Tampa Bay Derby
Despite giving away early-season seasoning to the very talented Any Given Saturday, the reigning 2-year-old Champion returned with style in a pulsating stretch drive at Tampa Bay Downs -- setting a track record at a regularly-run distance in the process. Prior to the race, I penned in my Countdown to the Crown column at Horseplayerdaily.com that if Street Sense could tackle Any Given Saturday in this spot, they were all running for second come the first Saturday in May. Turns out, about once a decade you're right ...
Winning Colors' 1988 Santa Anita Derby
The superstar filly decimated a strong field in the '88 Santa Anita Derby, setting scorching fractions of 1:09-2/5 for six panels and simply running everyone off their feet. In her wake were outstanding runners such as Ruhlmann, Tejano and Lively One. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee ran a magnificent 9 furlongs in 1:47-4/5 under Gary Stevens, who furiously brushed the gray's curly mane just moments after crossing the wire, an image I won't ever forget.
Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine and its website, HorsePlayerdaily.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or any other racing-related topic at firstname.lastname@example.org.