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HORSE RACING

Derby trail gets interesting at Santa Anita

Filly Stardom Bound and Pioneerof the Nile score impressive wins, putting them on course for a showdown.

February 08, 2009|Eric Sondheimer

Less than three months before the Kentucky Derby, Santa Anita was the setting Saturday for a memorable day of racing that produced two compelling performances by top 3-year-olds who could be on a collision course.

First up was the champion filly Stardom Bound, making her first start since being purchased for $5.7 million by IEAH Stables in November. All she did was charge down the stretch under jockey Mike Smith to defeat Haka by 1 1/4 lengths to win the Grade I $300,000 Las Virgenes Stakes at one mile.

"She is special, really special," said Michael Iavarone, co-president of IEAH Stables.

Then it was Pioneerof the Nile's turn to make his case, and the 3-year-old son of Empire Maker was even more impressive, rallying from the top of the stretch to overtake Papa Clem by half a length in the swift time of 1:41.90 in the Grade II $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at 1 1/16 miles.

"This is the kind of horse who has me excited," said trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby three times.

The horses could meet on April 4 in the Santa Anita Derby, setting up an intriguing female-vs.-male clash. No filly has won the Santa Anita Derby since Winning Colors in 1988, and she went on to win the Kentucky Derby.

Stardom Bound, a gray daughter of Tapit who is being guided by Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel while she's based in California, has won four consecutive Grade I races under Smith. She was in her customary last position in the field of eight but moved up down the backstretch and briefly was boxed in.

"I was actually glad to be bottled up, because I didn't want to ask her to run too early," Smith said. "I figured if I stayed stuck, something would probably open up by the eighth pole. She accelerates so good, it's amazing."

Stardom Bound's connections will have to decide whether to take on the males in the Santa Anita Derby, and if she does and succeeds, Iavarone said a trip to Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May could come next.

"We bought her with the intention of getting to the Derby if she earned it," he said.

Pioneerof the Nile, coming off a victory in the $750,000 CashCall Futurity, had to overcome a troubled trip under jockey Garrett Gomez.

"We had a Kentucky Derby-type trip," Gomez said. "Coming to the eighth pole 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."

Pioneerof the Nile increased his career winnings to $664,200 for owner Ahmed Zayat, whose horses won three races Saturday.

Both Stardom Bound and Pioneerof the Nile have shown they can win on synthetic surfaces, but they have yet to run on dirt, the surface at Churchill Downs.

"If he likes the dirt, he'll like the dirt," Baffert said of Pioneerof the Nile. "I can't force him to like the dirt. I've learned really good horses can run on both."

While the attention was focused Saturday on the 3-year-olds, the 4-year-old Cowboy Cal established himself as a contender for the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap by winning the Grade II $250,000 Strub Stakes by three quarters of a length over Blue Exit at 1 1/8 miles.

Ridden by jockey John Velazquez and trained by Todd Pletcher, Cowboy Cal covered the distance in 1:48.22.

In the fourth graded stakes of the day, Matto Mondo, ridden by Smith, won the Grade III $100,000 Thunder Road Handicap by 3 1/4 lengths over Global Hunter at one mile on the Pro-Ride surface.

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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