By Andrew Beyer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
The phrase "Silky Sullivan finish" became part of the American lexicon almost exactly 50 years ago, and it has been applied to anybody who rallies from a huge deficit -- whether it's a sports team in the fourth quarter or a politician who had trailed badly in the polls. Yet few thoroughbreds have truly merited a comparison to the California colt who came from so far behind in his 1958 races that he necessitated the invention of the split screen in television coverage.
On Saturday, however, a 3-year-old unleashed a stretch run that made veteran racing fans search their memory recesses for an apt comparison. Silky Sullivan was the only one who was appropriate. Maybe someday a last-to-first comeback will be known as a "Pyro finish."
The colt's style was already well established before he launched his 3-year-old campaign in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds. Last fall he had made strong rallies in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Champagne Stakes, finishing second in both behind War Pass, eventual champion of their generation.
So it was no surprise when Pyro was racing at the rear of the 11-horse field in New Orleans. The early pace was slow, the field was a tight pack, and jockey Shaun Bridgmohan never had an opening to use to advance into a better striking position. When the field swung around the turn and straightened into the stretch, he still had 10 horses in front of him and he was eight lengths behind the leader. Track announcer John Dooley called, "Pyro's last! Pyro's last as they swing into the stretch!"
Bridgmohan tried to advance inside the pack -- "I was just looking for some daylight," he said -- but he had a mass of horseflesh ahead of him and swung abruptly to the outside. And then he flew. It happened so fast that Dooley barely saw him before he was taking the lead. "Pyro's coming like a rocket!" he shouted. "He was last a moment ago!" In a matter of seconds the colt had gone from last to first, and at the finish line was a comfortable two-length winner.
Fans who missed it can see the race at YouTube.com by searching for "2008 Risen Star Stakes." I have been watching and covering prep races for the Kentucky Derby for four decades, and I would rank this among the most impressive ever -- along with Honest Pleasure's 1976 Flamingo Stakes and Spend a Buck's 1985 Garden State Stakes. The stretch run might be the most eye-catching since Silky Sullivan himself, who made up nearly 30 lengths in the 1958 Santa Anita Derby.
Any mention of Silky Sullivan must be qualified with this fact: His dramatic finishes were deceptive; he wasn't as talented as he might have seemed. When Silky Sullivan came East for the Kentucky Derby, he turned into one of the most conspicuous flops in racing history. When the colt's career was over, his jockey Bill Shoemaker acknowledged; "Actually, he wasn't that good a horse at all."
What about Pyro? Is he for real?
When a horse receives a lot of hype, speed figures are usually an objective way of telling whether he is a legitimate talent. Genuine stars run fast. But Pyro's race at the Fair Grounds was undeniably slow. Half an hour before the Risen Star, the 3-year-old filly Indian Blessing won a stakes by running 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.75. Pyro covered the same distance in a mediocre 1:44.68. His performance translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 90 -- a dismal number for a colt with Kentucky Derby pretensions and one that might suggest that Pyro is a phony.
Impressive-looking stretch runs can often be illusory, particularly when the early pace of a race is exceptionally fast. When the leaders set fast fractions and weaken in the stretch, the come-from-behind runners surge past them. The ralliers appear to be flying because they are passing rivals who are going slow. (This is a regular Kentucky Derby phenomenon: Non-superstars such as Monarchos, Fusaichi Pegasus and Grindstone looked brilliant when they made big rallies to win the Derby, but they were all abetted by a fast pace and they were flying past horses who were gasping for air.) Yet fast fractions didn't aid Pyro on Saturday. On the contrary. The pace for the Risen Star was a crawl. Indian Blessing ran the first six furlongs of her race in 1:11.40. In a stakes race for older males, the fraction was 1:12.41. In the Risen Star, as Pyro was trailing the field, the leaders reached the six-furlong mark in a dawdling 1:14.62.
This is the opposite of the common Kentucky Derby scenario. When the early pace of a race is very slow, front-runners usually dominate and stretch-runners are compromised. Making a last-to-first rally into the teeth of a slow pace is almost impossible. Yet Pyro did it. ESPN analyst Randy Moss studied the film of the race with a digital timer and determined that Pyro ran his final quarter mile in 22.3 seconds. That's phenomenal. The pace explains why the final time of the Risen Star -- and the speed figure -- were so slow. After the first six furlongs were run in 1:14.62, Pyro couldn't have recorded a fast final time if he had sprouted wings.
Pyro will run fast and earn big speed figures when he has a swift pace in front of him -- as he surely will in future stakes. His chief adversary this season may well be his rival from last fall, the brilliantly fast War Pass, who has led all the way to win all four of his races. The prospective clashes of a quintessential speed horse and a quintessential stretch-runner should excite any racing fan who has a pulse.