Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pioneer of the Nile finishes drill, avoids mishap


by Jeff Lowe

Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Pioneerof the Nile continued to provide trainer Bob Baffert with good vibes about a switch to dirt with a five-furlong workout in 1:01 on Monday morning at Churchill Downs, five days out from the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).

The Empire Maker colt breezed from the half-mile pole past the wire to the seven-eighths pole and galloped out well onto the backstretch under former jockey Joe Steiner. (click here for video of Pioneerof the Nile's workout)

Baffert directed the workout via radio from the grandstand, alongside owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat. Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner, said he thinks Pioneerof the Nile moves better on the Churchill dirt than he did on synthetic surfaces in Southern California, where he has compiled four straight graded stakes wins.

“He’s got a long stride as it is, but he really moves better over the dirt, I think,” Baffert said. “His stride is just tremendous. I had the radio on the whole time, and I think he wanted to go a little faster and I wouldn’t let him. [Steiner] contained him really well. I was real happy with the work.”

Baffert’s enthusiasm was tempered a few minutes after Pioneerof the Nile exited the track when he witnessed a nasty training mishap in the stretch.

Doctor Rap, an unraced three-year-old Smarty Jones colt trained by David Carroll, got loose after dumping jockey Tony Farina, and collided with Rasberry Kiss, an unraced two-year-old Champali filly trained by Ken McPeek, standing along the outside rail.

Rasberry Kiss sustained a broken hip and was euthanized at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington. Her exercise rider, Larry Lague, was being evaluated for a possible broken foot.

Doctor Rap was transported to Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, where he is being treated for a severe bone bruise and possible nerve damage. Farina was not injured.

The incident came while a number of Derby hopefuls were on the track after the renovation break, including Chocolate Candy, who was in the middle of a five-furlong workout in :59.20.

Trainer Todd Pletcher sent Derby candidates Advice and Take the Points back to his barn while the two injured horses were being attended to on the track. Advice later breezed four furlongs in :47.20 and Take the Points covered five furlongs in 1:00.20.

“The [Carroll-trained] horse was just barreling down the track and nobody had a chance to scatter,” Baffert said. “For some reason, that horse just freaked out, and it was just horrible. I had [2008 champion female sprinter] Indian Blessing out there at the same time and I was looking around when the horn went off. I knew Pioneerof the Nile had pulled up. It’s just unfortunate.

“That horse was rolling, he must have been going 40 miles an hour when he hit the other horse. … I was excited about [Pioneerof the Nile’s workout], and then the incident kind of took away from it and ruined the morning.”

Baffert also said he felt bad for trainer Jimmy Jerkens following the defection of Florida Derby Presented by Blackberry (G1) winner Quality Road because of continued foot issues.

“It’s a shame, because you don’t get too many chances with a really good horse like that for the Derby,” Baffert said.

Baffert remembers exactly where he was when he got the phone call from Zayat that resulted in Pioneerof the Nile joining his barn last November. The conversation came days after Midshipman, the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner and eventual champion two-year-old, departed Baffert’s barn to join the Godolphin Racing roster in Dubai.

“I was driving around this neighborhood and I got a call from Mr. Zayat and he just wanted to talk business,” Baffert said. “He said, ‘I want to come back to California and I want to give you these horses.’ He didn’t say any names, he just said he was going to send me six horses. He said he was going to send me some good ones. I got a call later from Sobhy Sonbol, his assistant, and he gave me the names, and I was like ‘Wow.’ ”

Baffert had been impressed by Pioneerof the Nile’s fifth-place finish in the Juvenile, in which he was 2¾ lengths behind Midshipman for trainer Bill Mott. (click here for video of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile)

“Midshipman had just left and we kept the stall open and put Pioneerof the Nile in there,” Baffert said. “The stall didn’t get a chance to get cold.

“I knew he was a good horse. … I was telling Bill Mott the other day that this horse has changed so much in the way he moves, his action. He’s matured a lot. He’s really quieted down, and since he’s been here, he’s improved a lot. That’s what you want to see. You want to see horses get here and move forward."

Steiner said Pioneerof the Nile is much calmer than when he first breezed him last fall.

“He was a little high strung,” Steiner said. “His mind is right on now. He’s very confident in himself. He’s very cool and confident and focused.”