Pyro stops Kodiak Kowboy in Forego

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John Velazquez went back to the jocks’ room and started to teach RaceRiding 101. Saturday’s lesson: How to Win a 7-furlong Grade I atSaratoga.

With hand-slapping, whistling, whew-ing enthusiasm, the jockey made his point.

“He’s in front of me. I’m watching him. When he gets to the three-eighths pole, he’s going to go out and when he goes out I’m going to take his spot. If I get to the three-sixteenth pole before he gets there, I can win the race. Otherwise, he shuts me off and he wins the race.”

He is Gabriel Saez aboard 6-5 favorite Kodiak Kowboy. Velazquez, riding 4-1 second choice Pyro, won the race to the spot and the race – the $300,000 Forego – by a half-length in 1:21.48. Kodiak Kowboy settled for second with Ready’s Echo (Calvin Borel) another half-length back in third. Owned by Godolphin Stable and trained by Saeed bin Suroor, the winner earned his first victory since June 2008 when owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and trained by Steve Asmussen.

Purchased by Godolphin after finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last fall, Pyro did not run again until July 29 when he finished second to Forego rival Gold Trippi here. Velazquez learned a little from that race, another late-running try at 7 furlongs.

“Last time I tried to basically roughen him up between the horses and make him go somewhere and he didn’t like it,” the jockey said. “He threw his head all over and got all discombobulated. Today I was going to take my time and do it nice and easy and be gentle with him and manage him little by little instead of trying to manage him the whole way.”

The new tactics worked.

From the rail, Pyro broke last of 12 and found some space as Multidude and Riley Tucker sparred on the lead through a first quarter-mile in 22.48 seconds. True Quality joined the fray through a half-mile in 45.24 as Kodiak Kowboy (eighth), Pyro (11th) and Ready’s Echo (12th) rated in the back. Making up ground on the turn, the closers loomed after 6 furlongs in 1:09.02 – where Velazquez’s strategy came into play.

Kodiak Kowboy went outside to get position on the turn. Pyro, just behind, advanced on the rail. After straightening for home, the decisions met again.

Kodiak Kowboy went around Driven By Success. Pyro squeezed past to the inside while emerging from behind the tiring front-runners in mid-stretch. Finally clear of other horses, Pyro and Kodiak Kowboy surged together as Ready’s Echo dove to the rail for one final lunge. Pyro held a slim lead, and kept it.

“He came out right before the quarter-pole and I went in where he was,” said Velazquez. “My horse was quick and he had to be. I got there first. You have a plan and if it works, it’s great. I had one shot and it worked out. If my horse doesn’t quicken like he did, I’m dead.”

Pyro earned his fifth career win, while validating the time and money Godolphin invested. The son of Pulpit underwent knee surgery late last year and did his early 2009 work with Darley’s Johnny Burke in Kentucky. Godolphin’s American assistant Rick Mettee took over at Belmont in the spring, and liked what he saw.

“He came back to us in really good shape and then he ran big in the comeback race to set us up for today,” said Mettee. “When we got him we really circled two races that would be good fits for him – the Forego and the Cigar Mile.”

Step one worked perfectly, thanks to Velazquez’s decision-making and the colt’s acceleration.

“It seemed that earlier in the day no one wanted to close on this track but I told Johnny in the paddock not to worry about it, just let him run his race,” said Mettee. “He’s got about a quarter-mile run in him. He’s not a great work horse or an easy horse to get ready, but we felt confident that he would improve and run well here. We also knew we had to pull a perfect trip to win a race like this with his style and with this many in the field. When you beat Kodiak Kowboy you know it’s a real race.”

Eighth in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Travers last year, Pyro may have found a home in one-turn races at a mile or less where he can use his acceleration more effectively.

“He was a two-turn horse as a 3-year-old but he broke his maiden sprinting and he’s made moves in races, but then just flattened out a bit,” said Mettee. “Seven furlongs on this track is a little different than at others; you can actually close at 7 furlongs here.”

If you pay attention in class.

Additional reporting by Brian Nadeau.