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Pioneerof the Nile runs to top of Derby list

Nobody was happier than me to see Pioneerof the Nile (yes, that's the correct spelling and spacing) come flying down the stretch (track announcer Trevor Denman said he came "like an express train" ) to win the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday afternoon.

No, I didn't have a big bet jockey Garrett Gomez's mount (he paid $5.40 as the 8-5 favorite). My elation came because just a few days earlier I had promoted the Bob Baffert trainee to the top of my 2009 Triple Crown Rankings list, a feature I have been running on The Buffalo News Web site since last November. It's always a good feeling when the horse you think is best actually wins.

Pioneerof the Nile had inherited the top spot on my list after Square Eddie, the former inhabitant, came down with a sore left shin and had to be given a rest by trainer John R. Best.

I like Pioneerof the Nile's chances in the May 2 Kentucky Derby for several reasons. He has good speed (he has been clocked twice now in 1:41 4/5 for two 1 1/16 mile races) and his come-from-behind running style is what you want to see in a Derby horse.

That's why I was happy to see that Gomez, in quotes provided by the Santa Anita publicity department, say that "we had a Kentucky Derby-type trip."

The jockey said "I was in a jackpot [tight traffic jam] around the turn. Coming to the eighth pole [220 yards from the finish line] I was thinking I might be a bad third and all of a sudden he kicked it in. He's a big, long-striding horse and it's nice to see that he faced some adversity today and he overcame it."

"We're excited to be in this spot," said Baffert, who has trained three Derby winners. Baffert said his next target probably will be the April 4 Santa Anita Derby for the colt that owner Ahmed Zayat bought in 2007 for $3.7 million.

Santa Anita, like all the major California tracks, has a synthetic racing surface that is much different than the conventional dirt track of Derby host Churchill Downs. But Baffert apparently isn't worried about getting his colt a race over a dirt surface before the Run for the Roses.

"If he likes the dirt, he'll like the dirt," Baffert said. "I can't force him to like the dirt but I think he's going to like it, the way he moves over it, and the way he moves over it. ... A really good horse can run on both."

  "He's moving forward," Baffert told Beth Harris of The Associated Press. "That's what you want at this point. I'm just excited to be in this spot, that I can even think about the Kentucky Derby. I probably won't sleep tonight."

Baffert was the trainer of Midshipman, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October and recently named Eclipse Award champion 2-year-old male of 2008. But Midshipman's former owner, Robert McNair, sold him to Dubai's Darley Stable and he has been moved to the desert under new management.

Baffert has won the Derby with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). He finished second with Cavonnier (1996).

Do you agree that Pioneerof the Nile is the top Derby candidate of the moment? If not, who do you like?

--- Bob Summers


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