Odds-on choice Pioneerof the Nile got the test he needed in preparation for his big showdown with The Pamplemousse next month, turning back a challenge in the stretch to win the $200,000 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Santa Anita March 14.
Zayat Stables' homebred winning son of Empire Maker earned his third consecutive graded stakes win with his 1 1/4-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe. Trainer Bob Baffert said afterward that Pioneerof the Nile is headed for the April 4 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at nine furlongs.
“He’s becoming very professional," Baffert noted. "He was a May foal, so he’s not even three yet. I like what I saw today. This will tighten the screws up for the Santa Anita Derby.
"It won’t be like this in the Santa Anita Derby, because he’ll have (The) Pamplemousse," Baffert said. "I just wanted to get through here. He sat there and did the right thing. I was a little bit nervous today because it looked too easy on paper, and usually, that’s when things go wrong ... He likes to run at horses, and he’ll get plenty to run at from here on out.”
Ridden by Garrett Gomez, Pioneerof the Nile went for an early move while racing three paths wide three furlongs from home in the San Felipe. Gomez said later that he was concerned with a slow pace established by New Bay. Pioneerof the Nile challenged New Bay and took the lead near the quarter pole, but the pacesetter proved resilient while fighting back along the inside.
New Bay gave it up in upper stretch, but Feisty Suances and Jeranimo rallied on the outside when Pioneerof the Nile loafed on the lead. The challengers drew close inside the eighth pole, but Pioneerof the Nile responded under moderate right-handed urging to remain clear.
"When we turned down the backside, I moved him out, hoping that maybe the others would pick it up, but they didn’t, so I just went on with it," Gomez said. "When we got to the eighth pole, he went to waiting on the other horses. We didn’t have a target late, but you can see that when I do get into him, he lengthens his stride. He can handle any scenario, but if we had a legitimate pace to sit behind, he’s more effective.”
A willing Feisty Suances, ridden by David Flores, took second by one length over Jeranimo and Brice Blanc. The final time was 1:43.35 on the Pro-Ride racing surface after soft fractions of :23.96, :48.60 and 1:12.82.
Pioneerof the Nile made his 3-year-old bow with a half-length triumph in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 7 at the same distance as the San Felipe. The San Felipe win, worth $120,000 to his connections, was his fourth lifetime victory in seven starts. The dark bay colt won the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) at Hollywood Park last December following a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). He increased his lifetime earnings to $784,200.
Pioneerof the Nile is out of Star of Goshen, by Lord at War.
He carried 122 pounds, spotting his San Felipe rival seven pounds while paying $2.60, $2.20 and $2.10 as the 3-10 choice. Feisty Suances improved off his fourth-place finish in the California Derby Jan. 17 at Golden Gate Fields for trainer Darrell Vienna, returning $5.80 and $3.80. The $2 exacta was worth $14. Jeranimo, making his stkes debut for conditoner Michael Pender, was $4 to show.
He's Really Big finished fourth, followed by Shafted and New Bay. Kelly Leak scratched.