Baffert bullish on Pioneerof the Nile

Apr 28, 2009 5:09 PM
by Ed Golden |

Trainer says colt primed for big effort

Legitimate or not, Pioneerof the Nile has more detractors than the Bush Administration, even though it’s been out of office for more than four months.

Politics aside, the horse that’s been accused of "winning ugly" and that has never raced on a traditional dirt course such as Churchill Downs, is one of the favorites to capture the 135th Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Take it for what it’s worth, Bob Baffert likes the colt’s chances as much as any 3-year-old he’s run in the Derby, and that includes Point Given, who was the 2-1 favorite in 2001 but finished a perplexing and disappointing fifth. He would go on to win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and eventually be named Horse of the Year.

Baffert already has three Derby winners: Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002, and missed by a nose with Cavonnier in 1996. The newest member of racing’s Hall of Fame has been enthralled with Pioneerof the Nile since before he won the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park last Dec. 20.

Pioneerof the Nile, a son of 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, is unbeaten in four races since owner Ahmed Zayat moved the colt from trainer Bill Mott to Baffert late last year. Pioneerof the Nile won the Grade I CashCall, then three stakes on Santa Anita’s synthetic Pro-Ride: the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, the San Felipe Stakes – both Grade II’s – and the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.

Baffert has maintained since after the Lewis victory that Pioneerof the Nile would readily adapt to dirt, pointing out that Hollywood’s synthetic Cushion Track is close in texture to conventional dirt.

"I was sort of fortunate that Pioneerof the Nile didn’t have two hard races going into the Derby," Baffert said at Santa Anita before leaving for Churchill Downs. "The tougher horses (I Want Revenge and Papa Clem) left town, so Pioneerof the Nile didn’t have to lay his body down (in the Santa Anita Derby). He’s fresh. That’s why I let him work a little (April 15 at Santa Anita, going a half-mile in :46.20). I can make up for conditioning in a workout, but it takes a while for a horse to bounce back from a hard race.

"Unfortunately, I couldn’t get three races into Point Given before the Derby. Three preps would have been ideal. We got out of Southern California just in time, with 90-degree weather coming in. It’s crisp in Kentucky now and horses love it. They blossom.

"Pioneerof the Nile looks great, he’s healthy, and this is where I wanted him. I haven’t had a hiccup with him. He hasn’t missed a beat. That’s the beauty of it. He’s a tough horse. For the Derby, you want a good horse, but you want a tough horse, too, and he’s tough. You need to be in the top five to win the Derby, and he’s in the top five.

"Now, he needs a lot of luck."

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden