Pioneerof the Nile didn’t turn in the fastest five-furlong work April 27 at Churchill Downs, but that wasn’t the goal for his trainer, Bob Baffert. The 3-year-old son of Empire Maker cruised through five furlongs in 1:01 and impressed onlookers with his long, free-flowing stride in his final breeze before the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (gr. I).
“You just want to make sure they’re moving well and fluid and hitting on all cylinders and that they’re happy and they look great,” said Baffert, who will be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame later this year. “It doesn’t matter how fast or how slow they go as long as they look like they’re hitting on all cylinders. I’m happy with it.”
With former jockey Joe Steiner aboard, Pioneerof the Nile rolled through splits of :11 4/5, :23 4/5, :36, and :48 3/5. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:13 2/5 and continued to run strongly down the backside, which, according to Baffert, was part of his plan.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had two easy races with him (in the Santa Anita Derby, gr. I, and the San Felipe Stakes, gr. II), so I just wanted to just let him go a little bit," said the California-based trainer, who watched Pioneerof the Nile’s move from the Churchill’s grandstand area.
Of the 26 horses that worked five furlongs at Churchill, one of Pioneerof the Nile’s Derby rivals, Friesan Fire, posted the fastest time, stopping the clock in :57 4/5.
“It was really easy; he worked really well,” said Baffert, who had thought about breezing Pioneerof the Nile in company. “He left the half-mile pole, and the wind was really blowing. He wanted to pick it up down the lane. I just told Joey -- I was talking to him the whole time (on a radio) -- I said, ‘You’re doing fine. Just keep hold of him.’
"He (Pioneerof the Nile) just wanted to go on with his big long stride. His ears were up, and he was looking around. But he was really reaching and he was really wanting to do more. He didn’t want to pull up, and he just kept on going around there. He was just getting rolling, and he was doing it on his own. (Assistant trainer) Jimmy (Barnes) was back there, and he said he (Pioneerof the Nile) didn’t even take a deep breath (after pulling up). That’s what you want. You want a fit horse that’s really acting like he’s fresh.”
Pioneerof the Nile is coming into the Derby with a four-race winning streak that dates back to late 2008. In his most recent outing, he defeated Chocolate Candy by a length in the April 4 Santa Anita Derby. The Derby will be Pioneerof the Nile's fourth race of 2009.
“I’ve been very fortunate with him,” Baffert said. “We got three Derby preps in him, and he’s handled them well, which is very important. He’s a really seasoned and tough horse. You need that in the Derby and you especially need it for the Triple Crown races when you have to come back in two weeks (for the Preakness, gr. I). I just feel he’s got the stamina and the toughness to handle the Triple Crown, and he’s also held his weight.”
Produced from the Lord At War mare Star of Goshen, Pioneerof the Nile has won five of his eight career races while earning $1,234,200. A homebred, the colt carries the colors of Ahmed Zayat’s Zayat Stables.
Pioneerof the Nile has never raced on dirt. He ran on grass in the first two races of his career, finishing fourth and breaking his maiden by a length at Saratoga. Since then, he has competed on synthetic surfaces in Kentucky and California.
"He's got a long stride as it is, but he really moves better over the dirt, I think," Baffert said.