Ky. Derby Trail: Nile Flowing Fast
Photo: Benoit
Pioneerof the Nile took the Robert B. Lewis Stakes Feb. 7.

It was an excellent weekend on the old trail, with some first-class performances, not only by the winners, but several of the losers as well. The latest Top 15 follows the column.

From a visual and statistical standpoint, Pioneerof the Nile  ’s victory in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) was as impressive as we’ve seen this year. Sure, there were more brilliant performances with outrageous speed figures, but the bottom line is, Pioneerof the Nile looked like a Kentucky Derby winner…at least on a synthetic track.

So, here we go again. As impressive has he’s been, he’ll be going into the Run for the Roses without ever having raced on dirt. That gives him a big question mark over his head. He could love the dirt, but the simple fact is, we won’t know until runs on it, and he’ll be doing so for the first time in a likely 20-horse field.

That aside, his Lewis victory stamps him as one of the top two or three Derby contenders. He has the right pedigree, the right running style, the right trainer, the right jockey, the right physical attributes, and he can lay some heavy-duty closing fractions on you. He demonstrated a dogged determination in running down his opponents that you like to see in a young horse. Also, watching the head-on, you had to like the way he holds his legs under him; everything in perfect position – no paddling, very little space between his legs, no cocking of the head, and no drifting. Many of the major aspects that made his victory so impressive are mentioned in his comment below on the Top 15 list, the most notable being he looked more like a European horse, the way he leveled off, lowered his head, and came charging home with quick, but long strides. Unlike the lumbering, long-striding type, he is cat-like, which is what made him look more like an invader from Newmarket or Chantilly or Ballydoyle than a typical American horse. Now, let’s see if he can duplicate all that on dirt.

Unlike Pioneerof the Nile, Friesan Fire  , winner of the Risen Star (gr. III), has a noticeable paddle of the left front leg, which could mean absolutely nothing, but is still worth noting strictly as an observation. He also became a bit headstrong early when he was caught between horses as they went into the first turn in a cluster, with several horses trying to get a good position. But he did settle well in third after that and went about his business, just as he did in the LeComte. With back-to-back graded stakes victories, and his dynamic pedigree, he definitely is a serious horse. Larry Jones has been singing his praises for a long time.

Put a line through Giant Oak  ’s fifth-place finish in the Risen Star. As mentioned below, he had the worst possible trip for a big, long-striding horse with his kind of running style. With a horse like this, the last thing you want is to get stopped, and he got stopped cold in heavy traffic while making a strong move down the backstretch. In a few strides, he was right back where he started at the back of the pack and forced to start his run all over again. When he did, there was a wall of horses in front of him and Edgar Prado had to bring him to the outside to search for an opening. When he finally found a clear lane he was way out in the middle of the track and had far too much ground to make up. He still managed to rally to finish fifth, beaten five lengths. He can certainly make that up in the Louisiana Derby with a clean trip.

There were two other losing performances in the Risen Star worth mentioning. The first was Flying Pegasus, who actually made his way onto the Top 10 with his second-place finish. Breaking from post 12, he hung five wide on the first turn and continued to race wide down the backstretch. When he hit the top of the stretch, he had plenty left and kicked in with a good run. But having been out for five months, he came up a bit short and was outrun by Friesan Fire. He still managed to turn back Uno Mas and was pulling away from the Asmussen-trained colt in the final sixteenth, finishing a clear-cut second. There is no reason why he shouldn’t improve dramatically off this race.

Perhaps the worst chart comment of the day was “Lacked late response” for Nowhere to Hide in the Risen Star. Coming off a neck maiden victory at Calder, the Nick Zito-trained son of Vindication looked on paper to have raced one-paced the whole way, lacking a late response. But what was missed was the fact that he was trapped in a box the whole way down the backstretch and steadily began to lose his position, going from a close fourth to seventh in between calls from the three-eighths pole to head of the stretch. He moved between horses and was methodically bearing down on the leaders when he ducked out from left-handed whipping, losing some momentum. He gathered himself, and despite continuing to race greenly, he came on again and just missed third by a nose, while being beaten only 3 3/4 lengths for all the money. This is another colt to keep a close eye on coming out of this race.

With his fourth-place finish in the Risen Star and Patena’s runner-up performance in the LeComte, it puts the broodmare Daijin in the spotlight. The full-sister to Touch Gold   has produced the dams of both Nowhere to Hide (Stirring, by Seeking the Gold) and Patena (Handpainted, by A.P. Indy). It is also worth noting that Patena is by Seeking the Gold, adding another connection to both horses.

Indygo Mountain  , bet down to 5-1, again failed to fire in the Risen Star, this time with no apparent excuse. You have to wonder how much of a toll his previous misfortunes this year have taken on him.

Getting back to the Robert Lewis, Papa Clem   made great strides off a maiden victory and ran a bang-up second. He’s an efficient mover and has the look of a good horse. I Want Revenge raced with blinkers for the first time and didn’t move forward off his nose defeat in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) as much as Pioneerof the Nile did. He veered out and then in at the start, had every chance turning for home, and drifted out again after Papa Clem took the turn for home a bit wide. It’s hard to tell if the blinkers helped him, hurt him, or made no difference at all. The bottom line is, he simply was outrun. The time for experimenting with equipment changes is about over and trainer Jeff Mullins will have to decide what he wants to do for the Santa Anita Derby, a race he won three years in a row.

The big disappointment was the impressive allowance winner Shafted, who broke a little awkwardly and was never in the race. This wasn’t the same horse we saw mow his opponents down with a brilliant turn of foot in his last start.

Stardom Bound at first appeared to have earned her ticket to the Santa Anita Derby and possibly the Run for the Roses when she returned with an impressive score in the Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I), but trainer Bobby Frankel said on the Thoroughbred Racing Radio Network he will inform IEAH Stables that he prefers to run her in the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I). So stay tuned on that. Unlike her previous wins when she circled the field and inhaled her opponents with one big move, she was forced to sit behind horses and find an opening turning for home. When she did, she charged to the lead in the final furlong and won comfortably by 1 1/4 lengths in 1:36 2/5 for the mile. After running her opening quarter in :25 1/5, she came her last three quarters in :23 2/5, :24, and :24. What was most impressive was the way she was striding out at the end. She covers so much ground and does it with ease and fluidity.

At Aqueduct, Haynesfield   again won by daylight, his fourth straight victory in which no one has threatened him. The New York-bred son of Speightstown   hasn’t beaten much, but you can’t fault him for that. But now it’s time to step up to the big leagues and see just how good he is, as better quality horses head north. Distance, as with all the Speightstowns, is a major question mark.

At Turfway Park, Parade Clown turned the tables on Music City, who had defeated him by five lengths in allowance company last time out. This time, Parade Clown didn’t let Music City get too far in front early. Music City kicked on and opened a big lead at the head of the stretch, but Parade Clown blew by him inside the eighth pole to win going away by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:40 3/5 for the mile. Parade Clown is a well-bred son of Distorted Humor  , out of an El Prado mare and seems to be improving, but the local horses have a long way to go to prove they can compete with the top horses. Parade Clown, however, does look like he has a future. At what level we have no idea at this point.

There were two maiden victories of note. One was the 2 1/2-length score by Herr Mozart, a son of Mr. Greeley from the Pioneerof the Nile team of Bob Baffert and Zayat Stables. This race was taken off the turf at Santa Anita and just may have exposed an interesting newcomer to the Derby trail. He did it the right way, defeating two promising colts in Snowmaster and Millennium Lakes, and Baffert feels he could have a bright future. The other was the 4 1/4-length victory of Haitian Sensation at Aqueduct going a mile. Coming off a pair of solid seconds, the son of Petionville finally broke through in a big way for trainer Seth Benzel.

In other Derby news:

-- If you’re looking for a real dark horse in California, keep an eye on Ryehill Dreamer. A closer look at his third-place finish in the San Rafael reveals a horse with a great deal of potential. Out for five months since his second-place finish in the group II E.B.F. Futurity at the Curragh, he made a big move between calls on the far turn, going from about six lengths back to a length off front-running The Pamplemousse  . He had every reason to get a bit tired in the stretch after chasing fractions of :45 4/5 and 1:10 flat in his first on anything other than grass. He was beaten 4 3/4 lengths, while keeping pace with Square Eddie. There is no horse on the Derby trail with more stamina than this son of Catcher in the Rye, who is trained by John Shirreffs. His pedigree, however, is all turf, so no one knows how he’ll take to the dirt. But for now, he is a sleeper to watch in the upcoming stakes. Consider also that he broke his maiden carrying 129 pounds and carried 127 in the E.B.F. Futurity. In the latter race, he finished 12 lengths ahead of the Aidan O’Brien-trained Westphalia, who came to win the group II Champagne Stakes at Doncaster and finish second, beaten a half-length, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Ryehill Dreamer becomes more intriguing with every look.

-- If you like to see trainers who go out and take the initiative, then you should like Kelly Breen’s move of shipping Atomic Rain from Palm Meadows to Tampa Bay Downs for a :49 4/5 breeze to get a feel of the quirky surface before running him in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III). Atomic Rain is another under-the-radar horse who will add blinkers after his narrow defeat to Free Country in an allowance race in which he lost a little focus turning for home. He’s had three works with blinkers, including a sharp 1:00 drill at Palm Meadows. The son of Smart Strike   has a second to Old Fashioned   in the Remsen (gr. II) to his credit, coming off a 5-furlong maiden race almost six months earlier, during which he was sidelined with a slight shin issue, so we know he has a good deal of ability. If he jumps up and wins the Sam Davis, credit Breen for a job well done. And all things point to this colt being very tough in here.

Both Ryehill Dreamer and Atomic Rain look like live price horses and we can see both making the Derby Dozen list in the near future.

-- Remember our mention of the spectacular Philly Park maiden winner Perfect Song? Well, the son of Pleasantly Perfect   was back on the work tab with a :50 breezing half-mile, and he has trainer Mike Trombetta excited. Perfect Song had been working in company with Casa d’Oro, who won his debut Jan. 27 by 7 3/4 lengths in 1:10 3/5, making Perfect Song’s 6 1/4-length romp in 1:09 flat all the more impressive.

-- It is extremely doubtful a son of Salt Lake, out of an Artax mare will be anything but a sprinter, but Hamazing Destiny did open more than a few eyes with his 10 1/2-length maiden score at Oaklawn in a rapid 1:10 2/5 for six furlongs.

-- Cribnote, who turned in a remarkable stretch run after bolting to finish second in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), is back on the worktab after being on the sidelines, breezing three-eighths in :36 3/5 at Palm Meadows.

Top 15

1--Old Fashioned/Larry Jones/Unbridled’s Song – Collect Call, by Meadowlake

Finally had his first work over the Oaklawn Park surface and everything appears to be on schedule for his debut in Southwest Stakes Feb. 16. Has to come back with a big effort if he’s to maintain top spot in his own stable.

2--Pioneerof the Nile/Bob Baffert/Empire Maker—Star of Goshen, by Lord At War

If he didn’t have the dirt question hanging over his head, he’d be a solid No. 1. He did everything right; fanned 7-wide, herded even farther out in upper stretch, yet showed quickness and agility. Looked like a European the way he was closing; long, gorgeous stride and flew home in :23 3/5 and :05 2/5 or :05 3/5 for final sixteenth.

3--Patena/Rick Dutrow/Seeking the Gold—Handpainted, by A.P. Indy

IEAH and Dutrow are over the moon about this colt, and feel they’ve struck another gold mine. Not crazy about the two-month gap between LeComte and Louisiana Derby, but no one is better with a fresh horse than Dutrow. Will have to sit tight for a while with him.

4--Giant Oak/Chris Block/Giant’s Causeway—Crafty Oak, by Crafty Prospector

Lost no stature in the Risen Star. Nightmare trip; made a big move down the backstretch into heavy traffic, got stopped and dropped back, then had to wander 10 off the rail in upper stretch looking for room. Finally got going, but way too late. He’ll be tough in the Louisiana Derby.

5--Hello Broadway/Barclay Tagg/Broken Vow  —Nightstorm, by Storm Cat

Still waiting to hear definitive plans. This colt needs a pair of two-turn races; one to make sure he can relax off the pace going a distance, and another to get him ready for the Derby. He has a world of talent, and it’s time to show it. A number of brilliant horses heading for one-turn Fountain of Youth.

6--Friesan Fire/Larry Jones/A.P. Indy—Bollinger, by Dehere

Certainly can’t fault the way he’s progressing, and he’s obviously finding his niche. He did get a bit rank early when stuck between horses, and he does paddle his left foot quite noticeably. But he’s now a major contender with back-to-back stakes scores.

7--Capt. Candyman Can/Ian Wilkes/Candy Ride—Stormy Way, by Storm Creek

Right now, he’s the most accomplished 3-year-old in Florida, but still has to show he can relax off the pace going two turns. He was too keyed up the first time. Pedigree is OK, not great, so it would seem two turns would be more beneficial. But he appears to be more professional now.

8—Flying Pegasus/Ralph Nicks/Fusaichi Pegasus  —Lilly Capote, by Capote

His connections had to be thrilled with his effort; first race in five months and breaking from post 12. He was hung five-wide on the first turn and continued to race wide. Kicked in turning for home and came up just a bit short. Love the way he held off Uno Mas and then pulled away from him late. He’s eligible to show huge improvement next time.

9--Poltergeist/Donnie Von Hemel/Tapit  —I’m Relaunchable, by Relaunch

Continues to work well for the Southwest, but he’ll be in tough against some brilliant horses. His allowance score visually still is one of the most impressive performances we’ve seen this year, so basing his ranking and potential mainly on that.

10--Stardom Bound/Bobby Frankel/Tapit—My White Corvette, by Tarr Road

Don’t know if she’s ready handle Pioneer and Co., but she looked good in her return and had to negotiate through traffic this time. She was striding out magnificently in the stretch and came home each of her last two quarters in :24.

11--Vineyard Haven  /Saeed bin Suroor/Lido Palace—Princess Aloha, by Aloha Prospector

Gets his chance in the UAE Guineas this week. Don’t know what he’s up against yet, but if he can run big against some solid Southern Hemisphere horses it would be a major step in the right direction, and he’d likely move up the list.

12--I Want Revenge/Jeff Mullins/Stephen Got Even  —Meguial, by Roy

Don’t know what to make of his performance in the Lewis. Wore blinkers for the first time, but was drifting on occasion. He ran well enough, but didn’t seem to move forward from his previous races. No apparent excuses, just simply a case of being outrun. But he deserves another shot.

13--Chocolate Candy/Jerry Hollendorfer/Candy Ride—Crownette, by Seattle Slew

Another Californian who has excelled on synthetics. Second dam is a half-sister to Affirmed, by Alydar. Steady closer who has now turned in four straight big efforts since being stretched out. Will run all day.

14--Silver City  /Bret Calhoun/Unbridled’s Song—Proposal, by Mt. Livermore

If he runs anything close to his performance in the Dixieland, he’s going to very tough in the Southwest. When he hit the wire he was just beginning to run, so the stretch-out shouldn’t pose a problem, and loved working him a mile to give him some bottom. He could be as talented as any of them, but long way to go from 5 1/2 furlongs.

15—Haynesfield/Steve Asmussen/Speightstown  —Nothing Special, by Tejabo

He hasn’t beaten anyone, but he’s looked awful good doing it. No one has gotten close to him in his last four starts, and like that he ran faster going 1 1/16 miles in the Whirlaway than he did going mile and 70 yards in Count Fleet. Big question is Speightstown.

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