Heavily favored Pioneerof the Nile , who took over the stall of Midshipman when the Breeder's Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner departed trainer Bob Baffert's barn for Dubai this fall, proved he earned it when he narrowly held off I Want Revenge by a nose in an exhilarating renewal of the $750,000 CashCall Futurity (gr. I) (VIDEO) at Hollywood Park Dec. 20.
Owned by his breeder, Ahmed Zayat, Pioneerof the Nile also represents a mending of the fences with Baffert after the owner removed his horses from the popular trainer's stable earlier this year.
"I never thought we'd reunite, but we did," Baffert told TVG after recording his record-tying fourth victory in the CashCall Futurity, which was known as the Hollywood Futurity through 2006. "There's nothing like a good horse to help smooth over some of those hurt feelings."
Pioneerof the Nile made his first start for Baffert in the CashCall Futurity after beginning his career with Bill Mott in New York. After breaking his maiden on grass at Saratoga Aug. 25, he made consecutive grade I starts in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland Oct. 4, finishing third, and in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, where he was fifth, 2 3/4 lengths behind Midshipman.
Owned by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stable, Midshipman was transferred to Dubai after his Cup victory to prepare for next year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), leaving a gaping hole in Baffert's plans for next year's Derby. It appears he now has a colt to fill it.
“It’s been so long (since winning the Futurity)," said Baffert, who tied D. Wayne Lukas for most wins in the event. His other wins came with Real Quiet (1997), Captain Steve (1999) and Point Given (2000). "I always came in with the favorites and they always won, so that’s good. It’s exciting . . . to me the Derby starts with this race. You can start thinking about it and getting excited about it."
In the Futurity, Pioneerof the Nile had to nudged to keep up by jockey Garrett Gomez on the final turn after allowing pacesetters Frumious and Ventana to edge away from him. Pioneerof the Nile reponded, fighting his way into contention on the outside and getting the lead past mid-stretch. I Want Revenge, weaving his way between horses, challenged on the inside. Pioneerof the Nile had the advantage at the sixteenth pole and dug in for the final strides after drifting a bit to prevail under strong right-handed urging.
“He was in a good spot the whole way and when he made the lead — he was waiting to make the lead because Corey (Nakatani) has been working the horse for me," Baffert said. "He told Garrett when you work him with horses and he makes the lead, he wants to pull himself up. When he made the lead, he started doing that, but as soon as that horse came to him, then he dug right back in again. We wanted to win by further than that, but he made it close.
“When he first got here I was trying to figure him out and was trying different things with him," Baffert added. "When Bill Mott sent him he was in great shape. It was a pretty good gift there. This is my own Christmas gift to myself. He’ll be going to Santa Anita; I don’t know which race yet. Today he showed a lot of tactical speed, he was right there close.
"He’s totally different than all my other Futurity winners. Of all of them he probably reminds me a little bit of Real Quiet. He’s a nice horse, he’s improving and he’s well-bred. The last couple times I worked him he seemed like a pretty serious horse so I told my wife that this could be the horse to get us back to the Derby. It was Midshipman, but now this could be the one.”
Gomez said, "When they slowed down I caught up and then I shut him down and just sat there for a minute. They told me in the paddock he's still a bit green and likes to wait on horses. But that's a good thing because he's got a lot of room for improvement. When he saw that other horse (I Want Revenge) coming on the inside he really dug in. If we had gone around again I don't think the other horse was going to go by him."
A dark bay son of Empire Maker --Star of Goshen (Lord at War), Pioneerof the Nile has now won two of five starts. Paying $4.80, $3.40 and $2.60 as the 7-5 favorite, Pioneerof the Nile completed the 1 1/16-mile Cushion Track event in a strong time of 1:41.95. The colt earned $400,000 for the victory, pushing his career bankroll to $544,200.
Frumious, who led the field of 11 out of the gate, ran the opening quarter-mile in :23.42 as he and Ventana opened a four-length lead on the pack. Ventana had the advantage after a half-mile in :47.08, but Frumious was back in the lead after six furlongs in 1:11.34. Both weakened in the final three-sixteenths of a mile.
Second choice I Want Revenge, making his first start against winners for trainer Jeff Mullins, was a tough-luck runner-up at odds of 6-1 under Joe Talamo. The son of Stephen Got Even stalked the pace on the outside and worked his way between horses in the lane to challenge in a big effort. I Want Revenge returned $6.20 and $4.40 and capped a $2 exacta worth $33.60.
"It was just a tough beat, said Talamo. "He ran great. Hopefully he'll come out of the race good and we'll get 'em next time."
Chocolate Candy, ridden by Rafael Bejarano for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, took a wide path to finish third, 1 1/2 lengths back, paying $4.40.
"I was right behind the winner the whole way," Bejarano said. "When we came to the stretch, both horses were lugging out but they kept running and I just couldn't get to them."
Bittel Road was fourth, followed by Azul Leon, Axel Foley, Mark S the Cooler, Hype, Frumious, J P Jammer and Ventana. Mr. Rod scratched.