Pioneerof the Nile , heading into the $200,000 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) March 14 as the West Coast's top Triple Crown contender, takes on an ambitious group of six up-and-coming colts at Santa Anita.
The 1 1/16-mile San Felipe serves as the final stepping stone to the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) on April 4. Pioneerof the Nile, a Zayat Stable's Kentucky homebred son of Empire Maker trained by Bob Baffert, will be heavily favored over the Pro-Ride racing surface in a compact field.
Baffert pronounced “all systems are go” after the colt worked five furlongs March 8 in a bullet :58 4/5.
Two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Garrett Gomez will attempt to win his third consecutive graded stakes aboard the good-looking dark bay. They will break from post 2 while carrying 122 pounds, seven more than each of his rivals.
Since a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last fall, Pioneerof the Nile has rattled off back-to-back gritty victories after being teamed with Gomez. In the CashCall Futurity (gr. I), he won by a nose over I Want Revenge at Hollywood Park Dec. 20. He followed that with a half-length victory in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita Dec. 7, coming from off the pace to edge Papa Clem and I Want Revenge.
Those victories were validated last weekend when I Want Revenge ran off to an 8 1/2-length win in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) in a tough field at Aqueduct.
Pioneerof the Nile has earned $664,200 while winning three of six starts.
The 39-year-old Gomez, who has been blanked in the Triple Crown during his career, is five stakes wins shy of breaking the single-meet Santa Anita record of 19. The mark is shared by Laffit Pincay Jr. (1982-83) and Corey Nakatani (1996-97). Gomez has 15 stakes wins through 54 days of the 84-day meet.
Kelly Leak, who captured the 6 1/2-furlong Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) at Del Mar in August only to be disqualified to fourth for interference in the stretch, will get a distance and class test in the San Felipe. David Flores will be aboard the son of Runaway Groom for the first time.
Owned by Blahut Racing and partners and trained by Mike Machowsky, Kelly Leak won a first-level allowance race at one mile on the turf Feb. 22. That was the bay's first official win since taking his maiden debut at Hollywood Park last June. He owns a 2-2-1 mark in seven starts and earnings of $121,890.
Shafted, who ran eighth in the Lewis at odds of 6-1 following a tardy break, is back to try it again for trainer Mark Casse and Woodford Racing. The Mineshaft colt popped at the 1 1/16-mile distance in his prior start, defeating a first-level allowance field by 2 1/2 lengths in his Pro-Ride debut Jan. 2.
Feisty Suances weakened to fourth after leading briefly in his last attempt, the 1 1/16-mile California Derby at Golden Gate Fields Jan. 17. The California-bred bay son of Suances , owned by Red Baron's Barn and trained by Darrell Vienna, ran second in the Dec. 26 Cal Breeders' Championship as the favorite following three consecutive wins to begin his career.
B. Wayne Hughes' New Bay comes into the race following an allowance win at six furlongs Feb. 16 for trainer Richard Mandella. The improving Cuvee colt has back-to-back wins to his credit but will be trying stakes company and a route of ground for the first time.
Jeranimo, a son of Congaree , steps up after a runner-up allowance showing at the San Felipe distance Feb. 26. He's Really Big scored a starter allowance win in his last start.
$200,000 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II, Race 4, 2:03 p.m.), 3-Year-Olds, 1 1/16 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. He's Really Big (CA), 115, Aaron T. Gryder
2. Pioneerof the Nile (KY), 122, Garrett K. Gomez
3. Feisty Suances (CA), 115, David R. Flores
4. Shafted (KY), 115, Joel Rosario
5. Jeranimo (FL), 115, Brice Blanc
6. Kelly Leak (FL), 115, Victor Espinoza
7. New Bay (KY), 115, Joseph Talamo