Even as he prepares to ship Pioneerof the Nile to Churchill Downs April 14 for the 2009 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), trainer Bob Baffert says he's still trying to figure out what kind of running style the son of 2003 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Empire Maker possesses.
Thought to be most effective as a closer, the Zayat Stables' homebred has hooked paceless fields in his last two wins, the April 4 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) March 14. That has forced jockey Garrett Gomez to improvise.
In the Santa Anita Derby, Pioneerof the Nile was mid-pack on the outside for the opening half-mile behind a slow tempo before quickly pulling his way to the front. Gomez had to rouse the dark bay in upper stretch to keep his mind on business after getting the lead. But Pioneerof the Nile responded and held off Chocolate Candy for a one-length victory.
“I’m figuring out his style as we go along,” said Baffert, a three-time winner winner of Derby on the morning after Pioneerof the Nile's Santa Anita Derby win. “I learned a lot from that horse yesterday. You get a little bit out of each race, and it prepares me for the Derby, so I’m really happy with my situation right now. The only time he really hooked top-caliber horses was in the Robert Lewis (gr. II). But we know what he can do when he does hook them, and he’s improving.”
In spite of his success, Baffert has not had a starter in the 1 1/4-mile Classic in the past two years. He remains supremely confident in Pioneerof the Nile, winner of four graded stakes in a row.
“He came out of the race very good, and he’ll probably leave for Kentucky on the 14th,” said Baffert as he watched his two-time Eclipse award-winning sprinter Indian Blessing jog on Santa Anita's main track. “He’s still pretty fresh at the barn this morning. He never had to lay his body down.”
In winning his last four starts, which started included a victory the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) last Dec. 20, Pioneerof the Nile has not experienced a pace scenario that would benefit his come-from-behind style. He'll get that in the Derby, which will also be his first try on a real dirt surface.
Gomez has ridden Pioneerof the Nile in each of his four Southern California victories, but the nation’s Eclipse Award winner the past two years as outstanding jockey also has ridden Todd Pletcher's Florida Derby (gr. I) runner-up Dunkirk, who could still make the Kentucky Derby in spite of marginal graded earnings at this time.
“I haven’t even given that any thought,” Baffert said when asked if he had Gomez for the Derby.
Dan Ward, assistant to Jerry Hollendorfer, said Santa Anita Derby runner-up Chocolate Candy “couldn’t be better” after his late-running effort.
“He’s sound, and he ate up,” Ward said. “He’ll be staying at Santa Anita until he leaves for Kentucky, but we don’t have a ship date yet.”
Chocolate Candy, who earned $150,000 for the second-place finish, now has $370,000 in graded stakes earnings. Owned by the Craig Family Trust, the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) winner came into the weekend ranked 14th on the graded stakes list.