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BILL DWYRE

Pioneerof The Nile wins Santa Anita Derby

However, the scratch of The Pamplemousse takes some of the luster from the Kentucky Derby prep.

April 05, 2009|BILL DWYRE

The old-timers just shrug. That's horse racing, they say.

The air started coming out of the balloon in late morning Saturday, as word began to trickle out that the great matchup for the Santa Anita Derby, a direct road to the fame and fortune of the Kentucky Derby, would now be a one-horse show.

The Pamplemousse, morning-line favorite, was scratched. Pioneerof The Nile, the close second choice, could now have his way.

And so he did, winning the $750,000 Grade I stakes by a length, after jockey Garrett Gomez got so concerned about the slow pace that he actually started moving him on the backstretch.

It was a nice race and a good show for the 50,915 who showed up at the Great Race Place. But a large percentage of those had no idea they wouldn't be seeing The Pamplemousse until they got to their seats. One wonders how many will shrug like the old-timers and return.

Everything else was perfect. Blue skies and soft clouds. Parking lots as full as they've been since this race last year. The majestic mountains looming. The infield buzzing. A 10% increase in on-track handle, with $5,606,698 bet.

Maybe just seeing a very good horse crowned as California's main entrant to the biggest horse race in the world is enough to keep people coming back. Maybe the tradition of the race, and not just the hyped match race, had brought them out.

Maybe.

In the early-morning hours, as is the rule for all horses running that day, a veterinarian examined The Pamplemousse. Jill Bailey found some heat on one of the horse's tendons, an area similar to a human's Achilles' tendon. Trainer Julio Canani was called, and he called his vet, Helmuth von Bluecher, who agreed there was an issue.

According to Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, there was not sufficient time before the race to treat The Pamplemousse and be sure he was sound. So Canani was put in a no-win situation. Even if The Pamplemousse won, the morning's medical discussions would come to light and he'd be castigated.

Canani was distraught. In the paddock for an earlier race, he said he couldn't be specific about the injury nor its severity, for a couple of days. "You don't know how disappointed I am," he said.

Part-owner Alex Solis II confirmed it was a tendon injury, and Arthur, who would not be that specific, said that, depending on exactly what is wrong, a horse can go back to training in a day or so, or can be immediately retired from racing. The Pamplemousse could still run in the May 2 Kentucky Derby. He might even run another prep race, the Bluegrass Stakes at Lexington, Ky., next Saturday.

"I found out right after my nap, about 10:45 this morning," said Alex Solis, who rides The Pamplemousse. "Not sure exactly what it is, but maybe we'll go to the Bluegrass."

Solis got another ride for the race, and finished fourth on Take The Points.

The class was clearly Pioneerof The Nile, who went off at 3-5, and stayed in front of next choice Chocolate Candy as the pace accelerated to a final decent time of 1 minute 49.7 seconds for the 1 1/8 miles. Chocolate Candy is owned by diet-plan guru Jenny Craig, who showed a good sense of humor and some restraint in naming her horse. It could have been Hamburger And French Fries.

Pioneerof The Nile's victory did unleash a huge positive that might have offset the scratch of The Pamplemousse.

Bob Baffert is back.

The white-haired trainer, as close to a media darling as there is in horse racing, had Pioneerof The Nile beautifully prepared. Also, himself.

"It's been a few years," Baffert said, en route to his news conference. "I've got lots stored up."

He has won three Kentucky Derbies and seven Triple Crown races, but he hasn't had a quality 3-year-old for several years, and that doesn't make him happy. When the media bright lights turn on, Baffert is a moth.

Samples:

* "Now my wife Jill can get her new Derby dress. And a hat. Off to Rodeo Drive."

* "You get to the Kentucky Derby, it puts some spring back in your step."

* "This horse was an early foal. He still has baby teeth, got a couple just dangling now. We're gonna take them out and put them on EBay."

Gomez, the leading rider in the country in recent years, probably had his Derby day decision made Saturday. He also is the rider for eastern horse Dunkirk, who is among the better 3-year-olds but may not even have enough graded winnings to get into the Derby.

"If Garrett doesn't ride Pioneer," Baffert cracked, "then I'll go over to Los Alamitos and find somebody."

For the moment, The Pamplemousse is out of the Kentucky Derby discussion and Canani has another bad taste in his mouth from the Santa Anita Derby.

In 2005, his Eclipse Award winning filly, Sweet Catomine, came into this race as the favorite, ran a sour fifth and became part of a controversy when owner Marty Wygod said afterward that the horse had been having problems and had been taken to Santa Ynez for a day during race week for treatment in a hyperbaric chamber. The problem was, the horse had been illegally vanned in and out of Santa Anita -- identified at the gate only as "The Pony" -- and the wagering public had not been told.

Wygod took all the horses he had from Canani, who said that was fine. Few Christmas cards have been exchanged since.

That was Canani's first and only Santa Anita Derby. It has become Julio's horror.

That's horse racing.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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