Baffert, who has saddled three Derby winners, equaled the record of four Futurity victories set by D. Wayne Lukas as Pioneerof the Nile fought off gritty 6-1 shot I Want Revenge in deep stretch to win the 28th running of the Grade I event by a nose under jockey Garrett Gomez.
“It’s been so long,” said Baffert of his third Futurity win with Point Given in 2000. “It’s exciting. To me the Derby starts with this race. You can start thinking about it and getting excited about it.”
Pioneerof the Nile, owned by Ahmed Zayat, covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.95 to earn his second win in five starts. I Want Revenge finished 1 ½ lengths clear of Chocolate Candy in third, while Bittel Road was another two lengths back in fourth. Second-choice Azul Leon finished fifth in the field of eleven 2-year-olds, followed by Axel Foley, Mark S the Cooler, Hype, Frumious, J P Jammer and Ventana.
The victory was special because Baffert had the best 2-year-old in the nation in Midshipman, who was sold prior to the Breeders’ Cup and sent to Dubai by Darley Stable after winning the Juvenile. Now Baffert has another serious juvenile.
“He’s totally different than all my other Futurity winners,” said Baffert, who also won the race with Captain Steve in 1999. “Of all of them he probably reminds me a little bit of Real Quiet. He’s a nice horse, he’s improving and he’s well-bred. The last couple times I worked him he seemed like a pretty serious horse, so I told my wife that this could be the horse to get us back to the Derby.”
Pioneerof the Nile ran his first four races under the care of Eastern-based trainer Bill Mott, finishing fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his previous start. Zayat transferred him to Baffert following the Breeders’ Cup with his sights set on the 2009 classics.
“Unbelievable, a huge effort,” Zayat said. “Today the track was playing speed, all inside. He’s a horse that comes from back. He is a May foal by Empire Maker, typically they are not precocious, but that’s the heart this horse has. What’s special about it for us, it’s our first homebred to actually run, so it means a lot. The first homebred ever — the first homebred to be on the track. So how lucky can you get . . . you saw today, literally like a nose.”
Gomez is confident the best is ahead for Pioneerof the Nile.
"They told me in the paddock he's still a bit green and likes to wait on horses,” Gomez said. “But that's a good thing because he's got a lot of room for improvement. When he saw that other horse (I Want Revenge) coming on the inside, he really dug in. If we had gone around again I don't think the other horse was going to go by him."
Joe Talamo, the jockey on I Want Revenge, had his eye on Pioneerof the Nile throughout the race.
"We actually had a perfect trip,” he said. “I figured Garrett was on the horse to beat, so I just followed him. It was just a tough beat. He ran great. Hopefully he'll come out of the race good and we'll get 'em next time."
Rafael Bejarano employed the same tactics on Chocolate Candy.
"I was right behind the winner the whole way,” he said. “When we came to the stretch, both horses were lugging out, but they kept running and I just couldn't get to them."
Pioneerof the Nile banked $400,000 to boost his earnings to $544,200. He will now return to Baffert’s Santa Anita base to begin preparation for his 3-year-old campaign.
“When Bill Mott sent him he was in great shape, it was a pretty good gift there,” Baffert said. “But that’s part of the game. This is my own Christmas gift to myself. He’ll be going to Santa Anita — I don’t know which race yet.”