Triple Crown contender Pioneerof the Nile , overcoming traffic problems on the final turn, charged from the back of the pack to win the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO) in the final strides over 17-1 shot Papa Clem at Santa Anita Feb. 7.
Ridden by Garrett Gomez for owner/breeder Zayat Stables, the favored son of Empire Maker has winning trainer Bob Baffert thinking about the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
"I'm just excited to be in the position where I can even think Kentucky Derby," said Baffert, who has won the Classic three times but has not had a horse in the race in the last two renewals. "I know I won't sleep tonight."
Pioneerof the Nile found traffic problems on the final turn and was about five wide in upper stretch after being shuffled back a bit. But he kicked on through the lane under brisk urging on the outside of I Want Revenge , who had taken the lead from pacesetter Brother Keith, and Papa Clem , who had gained the advantage along the inside in the final sixteenth of a mile. He won by a half-length.
“We had a Kentucky Derby-type trip," Gomez commented. "The first half mile was great, and the second half was a nightmare. Everything was fine going by the half mile pole, and then going to the three eighths, Jose (Valdivia, aboard the retreating Charlie’s Moment) dropped down on top of me and I was in a jackpot around the turn.
"Coming to the eighth pole I was thinking I might be a bad third and all of a sudden he kicked it in. He’s a big, long-striding horse, and it’s nice to see that he faced some adversity today and he overcame it.”
The winning dark bay or brown colt was timed in 1:41.90 for the 1 1/16-mile journey, his first start since capturing the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) at Hollywood Park Dec. 20.
"Today he ran the way we wanted him to, that's his style," Baffert said. "He's changed so much since then (the Futurity). He's matured. He was great going into the gate, great saddling; his mind’s getting better. I probably need to school him in the winner’s circle. He got a little upset in there. We know his style now, we know he’s a good horse, and he beat a nice horse."
He said Pioneerof the Nile would remain in Southern California for the April 4 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), where he could face the champion filly Stardom Bound
"He likes it here, and he trains well here," Baffert said. "If he likes the dirt, he’ll like the dirt. I can’t force him to like the dirt, but I think he’s going to like it, the way he moves over it, and the way he ran at Hollywood. That’s more of a dirt course, anyway. A really good horse can run on both.
"With the trip he had, Garrett said he should have run third, but he overcame a lot, which is good. This is what you want. A good horse will overcome things. He’s learning how to run and he was very well-behaved today in the paddock and everywhere else. I just have to keep him happy and healthy.”
Brother Keith outfought I Want Revenge, ridden by Joe Talamo, for the early lead and set fractions of :23.28, :47.11, and 1:12.18 before I Want Revenge turned up the pressure to take over by a head in the stretch. Papa Clem, with Rafael Bejarano aboard, ran a game race while pushing the pace along the inside and came up just short. He was one length clear of I Want Revenge for the runner-up spot.
"I had to use my horse a little bit to keep my position from the three-eighths pole to the quarter-pole and then to the wire," Bejarano said. "I think that cost me a little bit because my horse was flying at the end."
Pioneerof the Nile, fifth in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), won for the third time in six starts while boosting his earnings to $664,200 with the winning purse of $120,000. The homebred colt is out of Star of Goshen, by Lord at War.
The winner paid $5.40, $3.80, and $2.60. Papa Clem, coming off a maiden win in his third start for trainer Gary Stute, returned $14 and $6.80 and rounded out a $2 exacta worth $76. I Want Revenge, second by a nose to Pioneerof the Nile in the CashCall Futurity in his last start, paid $2.60 to show.
Trained by Jeff Mullins, I Want Revenge raced with blinkers for the first time.
“Around the turn, I thought it was going to be a matter of how far he would win by," Talamo said. "But I can’t really give him any excuse. He was laying so good right outside those two early leaders. At the top of the lane, I kind of let him go, but the other two got us late. Still, he galloped out real nice. I think he’ll get a lot out of this race.”
The stalking Bittel Road was always close and finished fourth, a half-length farther back. Then came Mark S the Cooler, Oil Man, Brother Keith, Shafted, and Charlie's Moment.