While watching Pioneerof the Nile glide effortlessly over the Churchill Downs track April 27, it was hard to believe the colt once had been a sickly foal. But prior to Pioneerof the Nile’s five-furlong work in 1:01, Sobhy Sonbol told the story of how the Zayat Stables homebred almost didn’t survive during his first year of life to grow up to become a Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (gr. I) contender.
“He got colic, and he had surgery a few weeks after he was born,” said Sonbol, who serves as Zayat Stables’ vice president. “He almost died, and then he had to have another operation a few months later. He had some adhesions in there from the first surgery, so they had to go back in there again.”
Darby Dan Farm consigned Pioneerof the Nile to the 2006 Keeneland November breeding stock sale, but the son of Empire Maker was scratched. The following year, Hill ‘n’ Dales Sales Agency, as agent, offered the colt at the Keeneland September yearling sale, but Sonbol, acting on behalf of Zayat Stables owner Ahmed Zayat, bought back Pioneerof the Nile for $290,000.
“Everybody says these horses that go through colic surgery, it takes them awhile until they get back, and they told me he was going to be late (in developing),” Sonbol said. “We put him in the Keeneland yearling sale and at that point, Mr. Zayat had never seen him. When he saw him at the sale, he said, ‘What the hell are we putting that horse in the sale for; buy him back,’ so I kept on bidding until I bought him back.”
Sonbol still had some concerns about the surgeries’ lingering effects, but Pioneerof the Nile showed early signs of precociousness that made those worries go away.
“The last workout on the farm before he left for the racetrack, he worked with another horse,” Sonbol said. “You usually try to keep them together, and they go a quarter (mile) in about :24 because you don’t want to ask them to go too fast. But he just dusted the other horse that was right next to him. That was kind of the first time he had shown a separation between himself and the other horses.
"Then, when he was up at Saratoga, he was my first 2-year-old to be ready (to run) even though everybody had told me those belly surgeries would hinder his progress a little bit. He’s also a May foal and by Empire Maker, so he wasn’t supposed to be an early horse.”
Pioneerof the Nile, who broke his maiden in his second career start, became one of the top 2-year-olds of 2008, winning the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) and finishing third in the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I). This year, he has scored in all three of his races so far, capturing the Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) and San Felipe (gr. II) Stakes along with the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).
The colt has earned $1,234,200.
“He’s probably one of the best horses we’ve ever had, and he might be one of the best ones that we ever will have,” Sonbol said.