The Kentucky Derby is still two months away, but already riders are jockeying for position.
For Ron Anderson, the mastermind behind the illustrious career of Jerry Bailey, the wheels to the winner’s circle never stop turning. Now calling shots for future Hall of Famer Garrett Gomez, Anderson not only has dead aim on a third straight national money-winning title for Gomez, but a trip to the winner’s circle in the Run for the Roses on May 2.
Gomez is the regular rider of leading Derby contender Pioneerof the Nile, and in a game where change is the lone constant, the Eclipse Award-winning rider of 2007 and 2008 would stand pat with Pioneerof the Nile in a heartbeat, if only he could.
In racing, as in life, no one knows the future. That’s why Gomez and Anderson are keeping all options open. Gomez took a redeye from California to Florida to ride a $3.7 million gray son of Unbridled’s Song named Dunkirk to his second victory in two starts on Feb. 19, winning by nearly five lengths.
Gomez got the mount at the 11th hour after trainer Todd Pletcher couldn’t connect with first choice Edgar Prado, who had ridden Dunkirk to a smashing 53/4-length triumph in his debut, or Pletcher’s go-to rider on the East Coast, John Velazquez. Prado opted to ride Alma d’Or for Rick Dutrow, and Velazquez had a commitment in Saudi Arabia.
Gomez rides Pioneerof the Nile in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 14. Beyond that, trainer Bob Baffert has designs on the Santa Anita Derby on April 4 for the son of Empire Maker, before moving on to Churchill Downs, where Baffert would seek his fourth Derby victory. Dunkirk is ticketed for the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 28. Gomez has the mount.
Understandably, Gomez and Anderson are walking a politically correct tightrope on both colts.
"Dunkirk is a real good horse," said Las Vegas native Anderson. "He’s playing a little bit of catchup as far as seasoning is concerned, but he’s a very talented horse. How many horses can go from winning a seven furlong maiden race to a mile and an eighth allowance in pretty much of a gallop? That’s pretty incredible."
Gomez, who has never won the Derby, admits you can’t have too many options."I’m excited about Dunkirk, as well as Pioneerof the Nile," he said. "We’re looking for more prospects, too, because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s a long road to the Derby, and the more eggs in the basket we can get, the better. Dunkirk is a talented horse and I’m excited to see what he’s going to do down the road.
"Things might look pretty good now, but winning the Derby comes down to that one day. You have to pick the right horse. There’s a long way to go, a lot of decisions to be made and a lot of stuff to work our way through. One goal is to get everything we ride to the race, then make the right choice."
Meanwhile, Gomez and Anderson are basking in the sunlight atop the money mountain again. Gomez was the national leader in purse earnings the last two years with more than $45 million. Currently, he is the leader in the clubhouse, thanks to a record-setting pace at Santa Anita. Just over halfway through the meet, Gomez had won 15 stakes and was on course to shatter the meet record of 19 shared by Laffit Pincay Jr. (1982-83) and Corey Nakatani (1996-97).
For Team Anderson, winning isn’t everything; winning money is.
"You can’t necessarily be the leading money rider or leading stakes rider and still be leading rider of the meet," Anderson said, "because you have to be out of town so much. If you don’t go out of town to win stakes races, you can’t be the money rider. It’s pretty simple."
A late bloomer in the Triple Crown picture is Zenzational, at $700,000, a less expensive son of Unbridled’s Song, who in his second start, broke his maiden in style at Santa Anita on Feb. 21, going six furlongs in 1:08 and change. It was his first start since Saratoga last Aug 6, when he faded to fourth as the 2-1 favorite.
Gomez was aboard for the win on the Zensational, who was formerly trained by Bill Mott, but is now conditioned by Baffert for owner Ahmed Zayat.
"He’s got the same sire as Dunkirk," Gomez said of Zensational. "He’s a little different, though. He’s faster, and a good-sized colt. I’m excited to see what Bob is able to do with him."
Baffert plans to run Zensational in the San Felipe with Pioneerof the Nile, and he didn’t hesitate to confirm the newcomer’s quickness.
"I knew he was fast," Baffert said after the maiden victory. "I could tell when Garrett came back with bugs on his teeth."
• Add The Pamplemousse to the list of serious Kentucky Derby contenders. True, he beat tomato cans in the San Rafael Stakes and the Sham Stakes, but he drew off impressively in the mile and an eighth Sham, barely taking a deep breath, winning by six lengths. Next stop: the Santa Anita Derby on April 4 and a meeting with Pioneerof the Nile.
• Some Vegas casinos are carrying Square Eddie and Midshipmen and Majormotionpicture in their Derby future books. Those three horses are hurt and won’t make the race. In fact, Majormotionpicture isn’t even nominated to the Triple Crown races.
• Hollywood Park is slashing its operating budget like it’s going out of business tomorrow, but insiders say the track has a shelf life of at least two more years.
• The Lost (as in lost revenue, lost circulation) Angeles Times had not one word on horse racing in its shrinking sports section four straight days last week, outside of agate type for results and the graded handicap at Santa Anita. Yet its omniscient editors managed to find two inches of space to tell readers a 1996 draft pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates signed a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers.
• I see where Obama is pledging to reduce the deficit. Yeah, and I’m pledging to reduce my gambling losses.