- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

ARCADIA, CALIF. (AP) - Pioneerof the Nile is still learning how to run, and it showed halfway down the backstretch of the Santa Anita Derby.

That’s where the colt tugged his way to the lead, gave it up and then went to the front in the stretch, holding on for a 1-length victory Saturday.

Now, it’s on to the Kentucky Derby for trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner who hasn’t had a starter since 2006.

“I’m glad to be back in the show,” he said after claiming his record fifth Santa Anita Derby.

Pioneerof the Nile ran 1 1-8 miles on the artificial surface in 1:49.17. He was sent off as the 4-5 wagering favorite after main rival The Pamplemousse was scratched hours before because of a soft tissue injury in one of his legs.

Chocolate Candy was second, followed by Mr. Hot Stuff and Take the Points. Feisty Suances was fifth, Unbridled Roman sixth and Gallant Son last.

Chocolate Candy, owned by diet maven Jenny Craig, may be moving on to the Kentucky Derby too.

Ridden by Garrett Gomez, Pioneerof the Nile paid $3.60, $2.40 and $2.10. Chocolate Candy returned $3.20 and $2.60, while Mr. Hot Stuff was another length back in third and paid $3.40 to show in front of an announced crowd of 50,915.

Winning owner Ahmed Zayat scratched his other horse, Z Day, who was entered to serve as a rabbit for The Pamplemousse, who has a front-running style. Cape Truth also was scratched from the $750,000 race.

Alex Solis II, one of The Pamplemousse’s co-owners, said his colt was scratched because there was concern about the soft tissue in one leg. He did not say which one.

“The tendon had a little heat and as a result, (trainer) Julio (Canani) decided to scratch him,” Solis said. “We’ll scan the tendon and evaluate it and go from there. We’re not going to take any chances with him.”

Both Baffert and Zayat expressed regret that The Pamplemousse, who has won three in a row, wasn’t able to take on their colt.

“Bob and I were looking forward to the match race everyone believed it to be, but unfortunately, we didn’t have The Pamplemousse,” Zayat said.

Based on Baffert’s confidence level, it might not have mattered.

The trainer, who is nominated for racing’s Hall of Fame this spring, was so sure Pioneerof the Nile was going to win that he had the superstitious Zayat worried.

“Bob called my 16-year-old son at 11:30 at night and said, ‘He’s not going to get beat,’” Zayat said. “Bob was super-confident. I’ve never seen him like that.”

Pioneerof the Nile earned his fourth consecutive victory Saturday, but his stock had fallen in some quarters because he hasn’t won his preps in eye-catching fashion.

“We wanted an honest pace,” Baffert said. “This horse has been taken out of his game the last two races.”

Pioneerof the Nile, whose name is a nod to Zayat’s Egyptian roots, was fourth in the early going before charging to the front on the backside. Gomez took a strong hold and the colt dropped back to second before regaining the advantage into the stretch.

“With all the scratches, it just jeopardized the pace for us,” Gomez said. “I tried to get in behind and settle early on. He was OK for a while, but then as they kept slowing down in front of him, I tried to take hold and get him back a couple times.”

Gomez wanted Pioneerof the Nile to run more like he did in winning the Robert Lewis Stakes on Feb. 7, when the colt was sixth most of the way before coming with his patented late charge.

Instead, he ran like he did in his last start, the San Felipe Stakes on March 14, when Pioneerof the Nile was fifth before moving up to second and then going on to win.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a missed opportunity; I was just a little disappointed I wasn’t able to get it done the way we wanted to,” said Gomez, who won the race for the first time. “You’re always happy to win the Santa Anita Derby, but just knowing the next step for him, I was trying to get a little more preparation for the next step.”

But Pioneerof the Nile is still learning.

He was a May foal, so he isn’t yet 3 years old, although racing rules dictate that all thoroughbreds’ birthdays are Jan. 1. He ran Saturday with two teeth dangling after they came loose Saturday night.

“I’m going to sell them on eBay,” Baffert cracked.

The white-haired trainer didn’t announce when Pioneerof the Nile will ship to Louisville for the May 2 Run for the Roses.

And Zayat did his best to resist catching that fabled Derby fever.

“Let’s take it one day at a time,” he said.

Tell that to Baffert’s 4-year-old son Bode, who clearly has his father’s confidence.

“Pioneerof the Nile,” he said when his daddy asked him who will win the Kentucky Derby.

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