- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

LOUISVILLE, Ky. | Jeff Mullins pulled I Want Revenge out of California this winter, sending him to run on dirt in New York. Bob Baffert stayed put on the synthetic surface with Pioneerof the Nile, and the colt racked up four consecutive victories.

Now the West Coast’s two top horses are headed toward a showdown in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

Coming off eye-catching victories in the Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, I Want Revenge was made the early 3-1 favorite for the 1 1/4-mile Derby after drawing the No. 13 post position Wednesday.

“I kind of left it up to the owners to pick,” Mullins said. “I’m just going to concentrate on getting him ready and getting him there safe. We’re here to play and hope our horse stays healthy and everyone has a nice trip.”

The last of four Derby winners from the 13th spot was Smarty Jones in 2004.

“It ended up perfect,” I Want Revenge’s 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo said. “It’s just what we wanted - to be outside of the early speed. I think it worked out great.”

Pioneerof the Nile and Dunkirk were named the co-second favorites at 4-1. Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile drew the No. 16 post, while lightly raced Dunkirk will be next door in 15.

Hall of Famer Baffert carried his 4-year-old son, Bode, to the post position board, where the child named for Olympic skier Bode Miller hung Pioneerof the Nile’s silks.

“I was set on 10 or 16,” Baffert said. “He hasn’t had that dirt experience. He’ll get less dirt kicked on him out there than on the inside.”

Pioneerof the Nile has trained well over Churchill Downs’ sandy loam surface this week despite never having raced on dirt.

His breeding suggests he can succeed on the surface. His father, Empire Maker, finished second to Funny Cide in the 2003 Derby, then went on to spoil Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid by winning the Belmont Stakes.

Baffert will be going for his first Derby victory since 2002 and fourth in 12 years, which would tie him with fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and H.J. “Dick” Thompson.

He offered a bit of advice to his friend Mullins, a country music fan.

“[He said,] ‘Lose the cowboy hat; guys with money don’t like the cowboy hat,’ ” Mullins said before taking a return jab at Baffert. “If I win maybe I can start coming to work at 8 o’clock and barking orders into a walkie-talkie.”

If he does win the Derby, Mullins won’t be around Sunday. That’s when his seven-day suspension by New York authorities begins for illegally administering an over-the-counter substance to another one of his horses in a security barn at Aqueduct the day I Want Revenge won the Wood.

Mullins said he made an honest mistake and blamed it on not knowing New York’s rules.

About 5 1/2 hours after the Derby ends, Mullins must be off the Churchill grounds and he can’t train any of his horses again until May 9 - a week before the Preakness Stakes. His suspension will be upheld by racetracks throughout North America.

If it all sounds familiar, it is. Mullins has a history of running up against his sport’s drug rules, just like Rick Dutrow Jr., who trained last year’s winner, Big Brown.

I Want Revenge has another tie to Big Brown. One of the colt’s owners is IEAH Stables, which owned Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. The group bought into I Want Revenge before he won the Wood.

“Take your poison and put the attention back on the horse,” IEAH co-president Michael Ivarone said he told Mullins. “It’s not like you were caught injecting the horse with a medication that was performance-enhancing.”

Mullins has saddled four previous Derby starters, with his best finish coming in 2005 when Buzzards Bay was fifth.

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