04/03/2009 11:00PM

Prime time starts now

Alex Evers
Trainer Bob Baffert will send out the stretch-running Pioneerof the Nile (above) in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Bob Baffert has won the Santa Anita Derby four times. He has won the Kentucky Derby three times. This is not the trainer's first rodeo. With both races fast approaching, Baffert knows what anyone connected with a promising 3-year-old is thinking one month out from the Kentucky Derby. One race to go, and it's off to Churchill Downs.

"Everybody's on pins and needles from here on out," he said.

The anxiety meter gets ratcheted up a few notches on Saturday, with three key Derby preps, all at 1 1/8 miles, spanning the continent.

Here at Santa Anita, Baffert will send out the stretch-running Pioneerof the Nile in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. The race was slated to be a showdown with The Pamplemousse, the West Coast's other leading Kentucky Derby prospect, but that speedy colt was scratched Saturday morning after a consultation between Dr. Jill Bailey, the track veterinarian, trainer Julio Canani, and Canani's vet, Dr. Helmut von Bluecher.

At Aqueduct in New York, I Want Revenge and Imperial Council, the one-two finishers in last month's Gotham Stakes, have a rematch in the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial.

And at Hawthorne Race Course, Tampa Bay Derby winner Musket Man faces the hard-luck colt Giant Oak in the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby.

Pioneerof the Nile is riding a three-race win streak and is 2 for 2 this meet at Santa Anita, with both wins coming in major two-turn preps for the Santa Anita Derby.

He employs a patient running style, preferring to sit back and blast home, but, based on his two efforts at 1 1/16 miles this meet, his rush is dependent on how much pace there is up front. Pioneerof the Nile was far more visually impressive in the Robert Lewis, when the first half-mile on the Pro-Ride was run in 47.11 seconds, than last time out in the San Felipe, when he had to lay close to a 48.60 pace.

"That wasn't one of his best efforts," conceded Garrett Gomez, who rides Pioneerof the Nile. "There wasn't much pace."

The pace should be quicker this time. Ahmed Zayat, who owns Pioneerof the Nile, also entered Z Day, a recent arrival in trainer Mike Mitchell's barn. Z Day has raced five times, never beyond 6 1/2 furlongs, and has yet to run in a stakes race. He has won just once. But he does have speed.

A field of 10 was entered in the Santa Anita Derby, but with the scratch of The Pamplemousse, no more than nine are expected to start. Take the Points, who was only intended to run if one of the top two favorites withdrew, will start in the race and will be ridden by Alex Solis, who had the mount on The Pamplemousse.

Chocolate Candy, who drew the rail, has won 4 of his last 5 starts, his only loss in that streak a third-place finish behind Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in December. He has not raced since Feb. 14, when he won the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, but he has turned in a strong series of works over the past month at both Golden Gate and, more recently, at Santa Anita.

"We're trying to prove he belongs with the best 3-year-olds in Southern California," said Dan Ward, the local assistant to Chocolate Candy's trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer.

Mr. Hot Stuff has won just once in six starts, but he turned in an encouraging performance as a distant third behind The Pamplemousse and Take the Points in the Sham on Feb. 28. He is a full brother to Colonel John, who won the Santa Anita Derby last year.

"I've watched all three of the main competitors work this week," said Eoin Harty, the trainer of Mr. Hot Stuff, referring to Chocolate Candy, Pioneerof the Nile, and The Pamplemousse, "and we better have our running shoes on to beat these guys."

The Santa Anita Derby is the sixth race on an 11-race card that begins at noon Pacific time. Admission gates open at 10 a.m. The race will be seen live on NBC in a one-hour telecast that begins at 2 p.m. Pacific.

In addition to the Santa Anita Derby, there are four other stakes on the card, three of them graded.

* Early arrivals are advised to avoid Baldwin Ave. between 7:30 and 9 a.m. because of the Santa Anita Derby 5K Walk and Run. The preferred route for vehicles entering the track at that hour is Gate 5, at the northeast end of the track where Colorado Place and Huntington Drive meet.