Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile heads the west coast contingent for the Kentucky Derby. <br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile heads the west coast contingent for the Kentucky Derby.
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Ky. Derby Trail: Coast Clash Looms Big

Derby shaping up as an East vs. West showdown

It’s not quite the Sunshine Millions, but this year’s Kentucky Derby (gr. I) is looking like a regional battle between California- and Florida-based horses, who at this point appear on their way to occupying the top four favorite roles in the Run for the Roses.


Last week, Quality Road  and Dunkirk stamped their ticket to the “Final Four” with a brilliant one-two finish in the Florida Derby (gr. I), and this past Saturday we saw California-based I Want Revenge , who has found a second home in New York, and Pioneerof the Nile  join them at the top of the Derby contenders list.


New York also will play a role, as it has served as a launching pad for I Want Revenge’s surge into national prominence and currently is home to Quality Road, who has left the sunny confines of Palm Meadows training center to train up to the Derby at his former home base of Belmont Park.


Saturday was one of the best days of Derby preps in memory, as it showed off the extraordinary talents of I Want Revenge and Pioneerof the Nile and their ability to adapt to any situation, whether due to a horrible trip or an unfavorable pace scenario. It also lifted the tough and consistent, but unheralded, Musket Man into public consciousness.


But any discussion about Saturday’s stakes must begin with I Want Revenge’s remarkable victory in the Wood Memorial (gr. I).


It was thought after his spectacular score in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) that the son of Stephen Got Even – Meguial, by Roy had proven all there was to prove on the Derby trail. He had the speed, the pedigree, and the versatility everyone looks for in a Derby horse. But as it turned out there was a lot more to learn about the colt, as he continued to add to his already impressive resume. Now, he has people asking: Is there anything this horse can’t do or overcome?


I Want Revenge had Aqueduct abuzz after his magical act, in which he turned what would have been certain defeat for most horses into a rousing victory. Credit also goes to his 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo for his cool-headed ride after the colt lunged at the start and broke dead-last, several lengths behind the field. Talamo adjusted by letting I Want Revenge, favored at 4-5, settle in stride and compose himself at the back of the seven-horse field. He then methodically picked off horses, but ran into more trouble after straightening into the stretch. This time he was able to maneuver I Want Revenge through a seemingly disastrous jam-up nearing the eighth pole that looked as if he were darting through traffic on the nearby Belt Parkway, while driving the old bumper cars at Coney Island.


I Want Revenge’s co-owner David Lanzman, beaming from ear to ear, rushed over to Talamo as he approached the winner’s circle and said through strained vocal cords, “You tryin’ to kill me?”


“The reason I’m hoarse right now is not from screaming during the race,” Lanzman said, his jacket and pants covered with dirt after being hugged by Talamo. “You know what it’s like when you witness an accident on the expressway? I’m just standing there waiting for the break, and when he broke last I let out a loud scream, as if I were witnessing an accident.”


Trainer Jeff Mullins added, “I’m just proud of the horse, that’s all I can say. When you blow the break it’s pretty tough to get back in the game. But he blew the break and then got trapped and had to find a hole and still won easy. Joe was patient, and it says a lot for a young rider. I’m not sure a veteran rider could have ridden him any better. He saved his horse and waited for the right time to let him go. ”


The right time was when he saw his first glimpse of daylight after being bumped hard by Atomic Rain on his inside and then getting hemmed in by Atomic Rain’s stablemate West Side Bernie on his outside. But I Want Revenge bulled his way through the small opening and drew clear in the final 100 yards to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths, as track announcer Tom Durkin bellowed, “A re--mark--able victory by I Want Revenge!”


The start of the race caught everyone by surprise, even Durkin, who let out an: “Oh! I Want Revenge, the heavy favorite, broke last and was absolutely flat-footed at the start, and he is left at the back of the pack.”


Talamo explained that Todd Pletcher’s horse Lord Justice rammed the gate, which startled I Want Revenge in the No. 1 stall to his left. That caused I Want Revenge to turn his head to the side and lunge in the air just as the gate opened.


“You can’t panic," he said. "You just have to go with Plan B. You can’t rush him up; just stay relaxed and let the race go like it is. He’s such a good horse he was able to bide his time and then pick up horses.”


To recover from that bad a start and go on to win would have been remarkable enough, but to then overcome that much adversity in the stretch showed that this is no ordinary horse.


The trip caused a few hair-raising moments for IEAH Stables president Mike Iavarone, who purchased 50% in I Want Revenge last week. Iavarone, who was at Keeneland to see Stardom Bound run third in the Ashland Stakes (gr. I), said he was “awestruck” by I Want Revenge’s performance.


“Either one of those things could have gotten him beat,” Iavarone said “When he broke like that I was sick to my stomach. I’ve never seen a horse overcome so much adversity in such a big race and still win decisively. It was an extraordinary performance. And they still went a second and a half faster than the older horses in the Excelsior Handicap (gr. III) the race before. You come out of it thinking, what could happen in the Derby that would be worse than the Wood?”


Despite all he went through, I Want Revenge still managed to come home his last five-eighths in a sensational :59 4/5, his last three-eighths in :36 2/5, and his final eighth into a stiff headwind in :12 flat, while getting stopped, bumped, having to wait for room, and finally having to alter course. A Ferrari F40 isn’t able to shift gears that many times and stop and go that quickly. The final time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1:49 2/5, compared to 1:50 4/5 in the Excelsior.


In the winner’s circle, I Want Revenge stood motionless with his head perfectly cocked as photographers clicked away for several minutes. And he would have stood there even longer if need be. In short, this colt, who is owned in part by Puglisi Racing and Charles N. Winner, appears to have everything you want to see in a Derby horse, or any horse for that matter.


Credit must be given to runner-up West Side Bernie, who rebounded with a big effort off his poor performance on Polytrack in the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II), and earned his way to Louisville. The Nick Zito-trained Just a Coincidence ran well to finish third, beaten 2 3/4 lengths, but does not have the earnings to make the Derby field. He’ll be heard from in the future. The big disappointment was the 5-2 second choice, Imperial Council, who tired to finish fifth, knocking him off the Derby trail.


I Want Revenge was scheduled to ship to Louisville on April 6. “There aren’t many more boxes to check with him,” Mullins said. “I think there’s only one more. And if he can win that one he’s a pretty special animal.”


He’s actually pretty special already. As Talamo, who is about to ride in his first Kentucky Derby, said, “He’ such a great horse; unbelievable. This is a fairy tale.”


The Nile has style


Whether you have a concern about Pioneerof the Nile’s inability to reach a triple-digit Beyer figure in his career or his relatively narrow margins of victory (his average margin is three-quarters of a length), the fact is, this colt is a winner. In some ways, he is reminiscent of Buckpasser, a stone closer who liked to beat you in the final furlong or even final sixteenth, never by big margins, but who was also undefeated in his eight starts in which he had the lead at the eighth pole. Buckpasser on occasion would inherit the lead too soon and would do just enough to hold off his opponents. On six of those occasions, his margin of victory was two lengths or less.


No one is putting Pioneerof the Nile in the same class as Buckpasser at this point in his career, but, like Buckpasser, he is flawless in his stride and determination.


In the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), the pace scenario once again did not favor Pioneerof the Nile, who in his last four starts has been able to utilize his late stretch kick only once. His only flaw is his habit of loafing on the lead, and he deserves credit for winning the San Felipe (gr. II) and Santa Anita Derby despite having to run counterproductive to his best running style. That will not happen in the Kentucky Derby.


In the Santa Anita Derby, the scratch of The Pamplemousse and subsequent scratch of intended pacesetter Z Day, left Pioneerof the Nile and jockey Garrett Gomez having to improvise once again. After a half in :48 3/5, Pioneerof the Nile was keen to go on and Gomez let him go rather than strangle him. He briefly took the lead on the backstretch, which was way too early for him and nowhere near the way he wants to run. Gomez was able to put him in neutral for a while, another quality of a good horse, letting Feisty Suances get back in front. But Pioneer was then forced to regain the lead when Feisty Suances failed to go on. That left him flying solo turning for home with no one to run at. The cavalry charge was forming behind him, with Take the Points, Chocolate Candy, and Mr. Hot Stuff all looking to catch Pioneer napping.


But the son Empire Maker  once again did just what he had to to maintain a length advantage to the wire. This horse is not going to dazzle you with big winning margins and track records, but because of that he will be going into the grueling Triple Crown relatively fresh, with his best races still to come. And as we said earlier, all he does is win. Scoring four consecutive graded stakes victories on the Derby trail is no easy task. And you can bet a month’s salary that trainer Bob Baffert hasn’t gotten anywhere near the bottom of him yet. Now that Baffert has booked his ticket back to his hallowed grounds, watch him knuckle down on this horse as the scent of roses grows stronger.


In the Santa Anita Derby, Pioneerof the Nile rattled off solid fractions of :24, :24 3/5, :23 3/5, :24 2/5, and :12 2/5.


What is so pleasing to the eye about Pioneerof the Nile is his long. fluid stride and the way he hits the ground so effortlessly. Watching him on the head-on his legs are perfectly aligned under him and there is no wasted movement. He has proven he can beat you from anywhere, regardless of how the race unfolds. Wait until he gets to the Derby, where Gomez, or whoever rides him, is able to let him settle back in the pack and unleash the powerful late run we saw in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II).


Of course, this is all contingent on him liking the dirt as much as he does the synthetic surface. There is no reason why he shouldn’t. The Pro Ride-to-dirt horses have been running big this year. But he still has to do it, and until he does, no one can be absolutely certain one way or the other.


If you’re looking for a live contender in the Derby, who has not reached the public eye yet and who should be a good price on May 2, Chocolate Candy is coming up to the Derby sitting on a peak performance following his strong second-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby. We’ve been mentioning this colt’s qualifications for the past several weeks and could not have scripted the scenario any better.


Like Pioneerof the Nile, he still has to make the transition to dirt, but trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has the son of Candy Ride  in prime position make a lot of noise on the first Saturday in May.


Remember, he was coming into Saturday’s race off a seven-week layoff, he was not helped by the slow pace, and he was forced to fan about six wide turning for home. His splits of :24 4/5, :24 2/5, :23 4/5, :24, and :12 1/5 were excellent, especially his final three-eighths in :36 1/5 while losing all that ground. He has an awesome pedigree, especially his female family, and, like Pioneerof the Nile, he has shown he can adapt to unfavorable pace scenarios, as he did in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III). He doesn’t appear to have as strong a closing punch as Pioneerof the Nile and he’s not as quick, but he never fails to fire and just keeps coming at you race after race. You can be sure we haven’t seen this horse’s best race yet.


So, Saturday’s preps gave us at least three more major Derby contenders who are part of growing nucleus of what could be one of the strongest Derby fields in years.


We'll get into Mr. Hot Stuff in our next column after we see how he stacks up on the earnings list following the Blue Grass (gr. I) and Arkansas Derby(gr. II). Right now, he looks up against, and it would be a shame if he didn't get in, because he is just coming into his own and improving with every race. And he is one gorgeous horse.


Musket ball


As for the Illinois Derby (gr. II), it’s hard to knock Musket Man, who keeps improving every race and who has already outrun his pedigree. He didn’t beat a stellar field and hasn’t quite reached the top tier of Derby contenders, but who wouldn’t want to have this honest, hard-knocking colt in their barn?


He has won at Belmont Park, Philadelphia Park, Tampa Bay Downs, and Hawthorne, so he certainly can handle any kind of track, including those that tend to get a little quirky, such as Tampa Bay and Hawthorne.


He did defeat a good horse in runner-up Giant Oak, who was unable to keep a straight course, drifting out and then in, costing him any shot he had of winning. But with Musket Man closing his final furlong in :12 2/5, he was never going to be easy to catch after making a big move outside horses turning for home.


A mile and a quarter still seems a bit beyond Musket Man’s scope, but you can’t knock a horse who has won five out of six races, including three stakes, from distances of six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. Not bad for a $15,000 yearling purchase. When a horse like this can close as the 12th choice in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, you know you’ve got one darn good Derby shaping up.


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