04/06/2009 12:00AM

Owner's rabbit tactic has backfire potential

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There he is, a longshot rabbit to mess with front-runner The Pamplemousse in the Santa Anita Derby and set it up for late-runner Pioneerof the Nile, who needed no rabbit to win three graded stakes.

Why does Pioneerof the Nile need help now? Why does he need the sprint rabbit Z Day?

"It's not a rabbit for me," Pioneerof the Nile's trainer, Bob Baffert, insisted, slightly irritated. "I don't train that sonofagun, and I don't talk about other's people's horses."

The question hit a nerve. And yet Baffert is right. That "sonofagun," Z Day, is trained by Mike Mitchell and owned by Ahmed Zayat, the same guy who owns Pioneerof the Nile.

East Coast-based Z Day has 44-and-change speed, and has never raced beyond 6 1/2 furlongs. He is in the Derby for only one reason, Mitchell said, "To keep the other horse honest."

He doubts it will work. "My horse is not going to change the outcome of the race," Mitchell said. "If Pamplemousse is the horse I think he is, he will lay off. And if [Z Day] is the reason he doesn't win the Santa Anita Derby he doesn't belong in the Kentucky Derby."

The truth is, The Pamplemousse benefits more from the rabbit than Pioneerof the Nile. Because the faster the pace gets, the more they will play The Pamplemousse's game.

His two front-running Grade 3's this winter on Pro-Ride were freaky swift-pace routes. It's how he runs. The Pamplemousse wins with gas.

Contrast that to Pioneerof the Nile, whose win streak in slow-paced, weakly run stakes leaves unanswered questions. Who knows if Pioneerof the Nile can chase real heat and kick? Saturday, the heat gets turned up on a closer who has never before chased fast fractions.

The rabbit won't help Pioneerof the Nile. All the rabbit will do is turn the Santa Anita Derby into a faster-paced race than it would have been. Ultimately, that benefits The Pamplemousse.

His recent wins were swift, and strongly run throughout, like the Santa Anita Derby figures to be. The Pamplemousse's trainer, Julio Canani, said, "I believe in karma. If they put a rabbit, let the rabbit go. My horse does not need the lead anyway."

So here's how the Santa Anita Derby can unfold. Z Day will set the pace for a half-mile in 46.60. The Pamplemousse will be on top of him. Z Day will stop midway on the far turn, at which point The Pamplemousse will inherit the lead without being asked.

While the struggling late-runners including Pioneerof the Nile are under a drive at the quarter pole, jockey Alex Solis will set down The Pamplemousse turning for home, open up, and win the 2009 Santa Anita Derby in a romp.

And in other news . . .

* What do Gabby's Golden Gal, I Want Revenge, and Well Armed have in common? All are speed types who lost on Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, then shipped to a dirt track and won stakes by blowout margins from eight to 14 lengths. Think there might be a trend?

* The synthetic-to-dirt angle resurfaces Saturday at Aqueduct in the Grade 3 Bay Shore for 3-year-old sprinters. Gato Go Win struggled with Pro-Ride last out, but the speedster figures to love traditional footing in New York, even if the race is loaded with gas.

* Jockey Alex Solis was comparing the 1986 Santa Anita Derby winner, Snow Chief, with The Pamplemousse: "Snow Chief was more like a bulldog, he would fight you to the end, he was a warrior," Solis said. "The Pamplemousse is more elegant, and has a very good mind. He's quiet - that's important, especially in a big field around a lot of people."

* Chocolate Candy will switch jockeys again, from Russell Baze to Joel Rosario. Assistant trainer Dan Ward was asked about the move to Rosario. Why? "The way he is riding at this track, right now," Ward said. It was simple and true. Rosario is second behind Garrett Gomez in main-track wins (61-58), winning with prices and favorites.

* How good are private clockers in California? National Turf clocker Andy Harrington wrote this about The Pamplemousse's final workout before his career debut: "Solis up . . . looked his usual big-striding self going the last quarter-mile in 23.80. Terrific mover is a legit Derby prospect." Harrington wrote that six months ago, on Oct. 1.

* The longshot Belle Canyon Road is worth a goof Saturday in race 3. She is by Unusual Heat, who had sired a meet-leading 27 winners through Wednesday. As for Belle Canyon Road, she is a full sister to Lennyfromalibu, former course record-holder on the downhill. Blinkers on, first-time turf, and a jockey switch to Garrett Gomez. Price play.

* Trainer Steve Knapp's top athlete is out for the season. Knapp's daughter Stevie Knapp, a high school softball star for the Ayala Bulldogs of Chino Hills, sustained a "blown" anterior cruciate ligament. An infielder-pitcher already on the college-recruit radar screen, she was batting .370 after nine games. Her ERA was 1.00. All is not lost. Knapp is only a freshman, three seasons of high school softball ahead. Stay tuned.

* Glad to know the California Horse Racing Board is on its toes. The board recently sent a letter to a prominent California horsewoman informing her that her owner's license had expired. One problem: She had died two years ago, in 2007. Even worse, the woman's surname on the addressed letter had been revised, and was listed as "Deceased."

* A rumor spread like wildfire late last week that Santa Anita's president, Ron Charles, had resigned. He was asked about it. "Did I resign? No," Charles said Wednesday. Good news, for now.

* Friends of owner Arnold Zetcher joked with him Sunday. After his filly Gabby's Golden Gal won the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks by 13 lengths, his friends teased him about a recent slump, and told Zetcher the win by Gabby's Golden Gal meant "Zetcher is off the stretcher."

* Desert Party was one of the few horses to make up ground last weekend on the speed-favoring Nad Al Sheba when he ran second in the UAE Derby, so you'd have to respect his chances in the Kentucky Derby.

* If California trainer Craig Dollase weren't so cold (3 for 54 at Santa Anita), you'd have to like his filly Nan in the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. She got stopped in the stretch of the Santa Anita Oaks, steadied, re-rallied, and missed by a neck while possibly best.