Pioneerof the Nile won the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park last December. <br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Pioneerof the Nile won the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park last December.
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Pioneerof the Nile Set for First Prep

Bob Baffert's top Derby prospect turns in :59 2/5 work at Santa Anita Feb. 1.

(from Santa Anita notes)

Bob Baffert, an old hand at getting horses ready for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), starts heading down the Triple Crown path once again when he saddles Pioneerof the Nile  for the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita on Feb. 7.

After Pioneerof the Nile  worked five furlongs on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface Feb. 1 in :59 2/5 under Garrett Gomez, Baffert said, “He’s ready.” The work was the fourth quickest of 58 at the distance.

The 56-year-old Baffert has started 17 horses in the Run for the Roses, winning with three: Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and War Emblem in 2002. But he has not had a starter the past two years.

Pioneerof the Nile, winner of the $750,000 CashCall Futurity (gr. I) at Hollywood Park last December, is Baffert's best shot at getting back to the Derby in 2009. Pioneerof the Nile is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut the Robert B. Lewis, named for the owner of Silver Charm. Baffert knows better than anyone that three months is light years in racing time, especially when preparing a horse for a 1 1/4-mile Classic in front of more than 100,000 roaring fans.

“We’re still pretty far out, so right now, we just want to maintain a level of fitness and conditioning,” Baffert said in describing Pioneerof the Nile’s status for the 1 1/16-mile Lewis. “He’s already punched his ticket to the Derby. He’s made enough (graded) money, so I don’t have to worry about that. There’s no urgency, so it’s good that I can run him when he’s ready. He looks great right now.

“A mile and a sixteenth is not his best distance. Once he goes further, a mile and an eighth, he’s going to be a better horse. He’s growing up, he looks good, and I think he’s relaxing more. With age, in the next couple months, he’ll change a lot between now and May.”

Pioneerof the Nile has shown more speed in recent works, but Baffert attributes that to the colt’s misleading stride.

“He was working well before,” Baffert said. “Some were faster than I wanted, but he’s very deceiving to the riders because he’s got a very long stride and he covers a lot of ground. He does it effortlessly. They weren’t supposed to go that fast, but he just fools you.”

Asked if the son of 2003 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Empire Maker  had mental or physical traits similar to Baffert’s past winners, the trainer said: “Physically, he’s still a little immature. He’s a late foal, but I can see a difference in him now. He’s really maturing in his mind. You can’t worry about how far he’ll run based on his breeding.

“The important thing is, he handles everything well. He’s got a pretty good foundation, and that’s what you want: a foundation.”