A lack of pace changed the game plan for odds-on choice Pioneerof the Nile , but jockey Garrett Gomez improvised, enabling the son of Empire Maker to hold off Chocolate Candy for a one-length win in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO) on a picture-perfect day in Arcadia, Calif., April 4.
A crowd of 50,915 was on hand to witness the Santa Anita Derby, part of a program that also included three grade II stakes.
Trainer Bob Baffert collected his record fifth Santa Anita Derby win as Pioneerof the Nile fought his way to his fourth consecutive graded victory and went over the $1-million mark in career earnings. The sleek dark bay colt is undefeated since he was transferred to Baffert's Southern California stable by owner Ahmed Zayat late last year prior to winning the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) Dec. 20.
Zayat, who temporarily took his horses away from Baffert in a dispute last year, gave his trainer a light kiss on the cheek after his powerful homebred crossed the wire. The winning time in the 1 1/8-mile Pro-Ride event was a mediocre 1:49.17.
Pioneerof the Nile will be one of the leading contenders in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 2 at Churchill Downs following his second grade I victory. The question that will hover over Pioneerof the Nile is how he'll handle the dirt. Four of his five wins to date have come on synthetic surfaces after breaking his maiden for trainer Bill Mott on the Saratoga turf last summer.
"You can put him on the lead, and he would have kept going, but I think he (Gomez) did a great job of changing his tactics halfway down (the backstretch)," said Baffert, who was tied with D. Wayne Lukas for the most Santa Anita Derby wins. "But good horses can adapt to any situation. That’s why he’s a good horse. That’s why he’s won four in a row now. He’s learning how to run, but the thing is, he’s very competitive, and I felt really good today about him.
"I knew he was going to win the Santa Anita Derby, and once he came out of the gate clean, I felt real good about him. I’ll just keep him happy and healthy (en route to the Kentucky Derby). He’s ready to go.”
After surprisingly pulling his way to the lead on the backstretch, Pioneerof the Nile took command from pacesetter Feisty Suances in upper stretch, and under frantic urging from Gomez, he opened a daylight advantage. Chocolate Candy, who circled the field on the far turn for Joel Rosario, surged five wide into the stretch and was gaining gradually as they reached the wire. Mr. Hot Stuff ran on for third, with Take the Points fourth.
Gomez, who said afterward that he couldn't hold Pioneerof the Nile back as they made their way to the front, picked up his first win in the Santa Anita Derby.
"We won, but it wasn't really the way we wanted to do it," Gomez told a national television audience.
A confirmed closer, 4-5 choice Pioneerof the Nile was expected to make one big move. But with morning line favorite The Pamplemousse unexpectedly out of the race with heat in a tendon and Z Day, entered by Zayat to ensure honest fractions, also scratched, the pace was too slow for the keyed up Pioneerof the Nile. The winner was under a snug hold while racing off the rail into the clubhouse turn. But early on the backstretch, Gomez could hold him back no longer, and Pioneerof the Nile bounded from fourth on the outside all the way to the lead in the matter of a few strides.
"I tried to get in behind and settle early on," Gomez said. "He was OK for a while, but then as they kept slowing down in front of him, I tried to take hold of him and get him back a couple times. He went for it once or twice, and then all of a sudden when they slowed down ... I was going to have to slow him down too much."
Pioneerof the Nile settled after that as Feisty Suances fought back to regain the lead and those two showed the way around the far turn as Take the Points stalked in third.
"He’s such a big-striding horse; he’s in a comfortable rhythm if he’s able to stretch his legs," Gomez said. "The bad part about him is that when he gets up there, he just kind of lollygags on me. He just makes me hesitant because I know he waits a little bit. We’re happy we won, and we’ll go on to the next step."
Chocolate Candy, who saved ground to the final turn, angled out on the turn for Joel Rosario. But there was such a traffic jam as they made their way around the bend, they lost quite a bit of ground while closing about five paths wide. Chocolate Candy finished willingly, but ran out of time while one length in front of Mr. Hot Stuff, who split horses mid-stretch for Corey Nakatani to gain the show spot along the inside. Take the Points, who was ridden by The Pamplemousse's regular jockey Alex Solis, settled for fourth, 2 3/4 lengths behind the winner.
"I think when we have more pace in the race, he’ll be OK," Rosario said of the runner-up. "I think this should set him up well for the Kentucky Derby. I really liked the way he moved coming to the quarter pole and coming to the wire. I really like his ability. I’m sure there will be more pace in the Kentucky Derby, and he will like that.”
"I didn’t know about what had happened to The Pamplemousse until I woke up from my nap about 10:45 (a.m.)," Solis said. "Obviously, I was disappointed, very disappointed. But you’ve just got to pick up your head and keep going. So I wound up with Take the Points, and he ran real good. I was proud of his effort.”
Feisty Suances, Unbridled Roman, and Gallant Son completed the order of finish. The fractions for the opening six furlongs were :24.04, :48.65, and 1:12.32.
Pioneerof the Nile improved his career record to 5-0-1 in eight starts and increased his earnings to $1,234,200. The victory was worth $450,000. Since finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last fall, Pioneerof the Nile has clicked off wins in the CashCall Futurity, the Robert B. Lewis (gr. II), and the San Felipe (gr. II).
Bred in Kentucky, Pioneerof the Nile is out of Star of Goshen, by Lord At War.
The winner paid $3.60, $2.40, and $2.10. Second choice Chocolate Candy, winner of the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) in his most recent prior start for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, returned $3.20 and $2.60, capping a $2 exacta worth $9.20. The improving Mr. Hot Stuff, a full brother to 2008 Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John conditioned by Eoin Harty, was $3.40 to show.