ARCADIA, Calif. -- The coast is clear. Between the scratch of The Pamplemousse on Saturday morning, and a fourth straight victory by Pioneerof the Nile later in the day in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, Pioneerof the Nile has emerged as the West Coast's top contender for the May 2 Kentucky Derby.
His victory came at the end of a tumultuous five-hour period that began with the scratch of The Pamplemousse. Both Cape Truth and Z Day also were withdrawn, leaving a depleted field of seven in which Pioneerof the Nile ($3.60) was a heavy favorite. But as in his previous three starts, Pioneerof the Nile emerged victorious, overcoming a dawdling pace and his own eagerness to win by one length and give trainer Bob Baffert his fifth victory in the Santa Anita Derby.
"He keeps on winning," Baffert said. "He's very competitive."
Chocolate Candy, the second choice, finished second, one length in front of the fast-finishing Mr. Hot Stuff. Take the Points was fourth and was followed, in order, by Feisty Suances, Unbridled Roman, and Gallant Son.
The first two are expected to go to the Kentucky Derby. Baffert said Pioneerof the Nile would likely work once at Santa Anita before heading to Churchill Downs about 2 1/2 weeks in front of the Derby. Jerry Hollendorfer, who trains Chocolate Candy, said he thought Chocolate Candy ran very well despite the lack of pace.
"Everything changed in a few hours this morning," Hollendorfer said.
The complexion of the race changed entirely from entry time. The Pamplemousse was expected to set the pace. Z Day was expected to provide company early. With both gone, Feisty Suances took up the early running, but he was going so slow - 24.04 seconds for the opening quarter-mile - that a half-mile into the race, Pioneerof the Nile had pulled his way to the front in 48.65.
"All the scratches jeopardized the pace," said Garrett Gomez, the regular rider for Pioneerof the Nile. "They kept slowing the pace down. By the 6 1/2, he was climbing over horses because they had slowed it down too much."
Pioneerof the Nile, in front in a race at the earliest point in his career, conceded the lead to Feisty Suances midway around the final turn through six furlongs in 1:12.32, reclaimed the lead a furlong out following a mile in 1:36.67, and steadily held his advantage to complete 1 1/8 miles on Pro-Ride in 1:49.17.
"When he gets to the front he lollygags," Gomez said. "He waits a little."
Gomez has a potentially dicey decision to make regarding the Kentucky Derby. He also is the regular rider for Dunkirk, the Florida Derby runner-up. But Dunkirk is on the bubble in terms of graded stakes earnings and is not assured of a spot in the field, whereas Pioneerof the Nile is in.
Pioneerof the Nile, by Empire Maker, was bred and is owned by Ahmed Zayat.