ARCADIA, Calif. -- When Pioneerof the Nile won the CashCall Futurity seven weeks ago, he immediately became a leading West Coast contender for the Kentucky Derby, a position enhanced by the spiriting to Dubai of Midshipman, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner. But when he makes his first start as a 3-year-old on Saturday, in the $200,000 Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, the intent, trainer Bob Baffert acknowledges, is not to have Pioneerof the Nile at his peak.
Pioneerof the Nile is in the unique position of having already earned a spot in the Kentucky Derby. How so? The Derby field is capped at 20 runners, 19 based on earnings in graded stakes races, with one slot allocated, for the first time this year, to the winner of an all-weather race in Britain. The amount of money Pioneerof the Nile already has in his account is well above the usual threshold for inclusion in the Derby field.
Over the next 12 weeks, as 3-year-olds literally try to earn their way into the Derby, intent in prep races will be paramount, especially this far out. For Pioneerof the Nile on Saturday, "there's no urgency," Baffert said Thursday morning.
"Experience is what's important for him," Baffert said. "It's invaluable right now. It will be good to put him in different situations, see how he handles it, and how he learns from it."
That's not to say Pioneerof the Nile can't win. But there are others in the Lewis for whom a big race, and the accompanying graded earnings, is far more critical right now.
The Lewis, at 1 1/16 miles on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface, is one of five races with Derby implications on Saturday. All are around two turns. Of the remaining four, two are graded stakes, two are ungraded. One hour before the Lewis, the Eclipse Award-winning filly Stardom Bound will make her first start as a 3-year-old in the Grade 1, $300,000 Las Virgenes Stakes for fillies at one mile at Santa Anita. Her new owners, a partnership headed by IEAH Stables, have the Derby on her radar screen.
At Fair Grounds, a huge field of 13 has been entered in the Grade 3, $200,000 Risen Star Stakes, including Friesan Fire, Giant Oak, and the impressive maiden winner Soul Warrior. Like the Lewis, the Risen Star is at 1 1/16 miles. Unlike the Lewis, it is on dirt.
Less significant, but still worth following, are the $100,000 Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct, in which Haynesfield should be a heavy favorite going 1 1/16 miles, and the $50,000 WEBN Stakes at Turfway Park, which drew a nondescript field of 12 going one mile.
Nine are entered in the Lewis, which features a rematch between Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge, who were separated by a nose at the end of the CashCall Futurity. I Want Revenge appeared to run in spots in that race, and he will be outfitted with blinkers in a race for the first time on Saturday.
Neither of those two colts, though, has much early speed, which might make Brother Keith dangerous. He blew the first turn in last month's San Rafael Stakes, and since he did it so early in the race, his past performance line, which shows him eight lengths behind after a quarter-mile, is deceptive; he actually was battling for the lead with The Pamplemousse for the first furlong before his antics. In addition, Brother Keith desperately needs graded stakes earnings.
"We're going to let him roll," Bobby Frankel, who trains Brother Keith, said Thursday. "I guess I tipped my mitt when I put Tyler on him."
Tyler Baze and Frankel combined to score a front-running upset with Mast Track last summer in the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Frankel said Brother Keith has "trained beautifully" since the San Rafael.
Papa Clem led from start to finish defeating maidens on Dec. 29, but his jockey, Rafael Bejarano, usually likes to stalk rather than force the issue. Charlie's Moment also could have contending early speed
If the pace is too hot, though, the race could set up for Shafted, who has the enticing combination of good form over the track and the need to get some graded stakes earnings. Shafted overcame a moderate pace to rally powerfully and defeat a first-level allowance field going 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita on Jan. 2.
"It doesn't look like there's a lot of pace, so we'll just have to see how it plays," said Mark Casse, who trains Shafted. "I want him to sit back and come running. That might not work on Saturday, but I don't want to change his game plan. I think he's doing even better than before his last race. He's really training well right now."