03/14/2009 12:00AM

San Felipe looks like one-horse race


ARCADIA, Calif. - The biggest fault with Pioneerof the Nile is that he has rendered Saturday's $200,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita little more than an exhibition.

There were seven horses entered for the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on Wednesday, but scratches are possible. Two runners - He's Really Big and New Bay - are entered in Sunday's Pasadena Stakes on turf. On Friday, their trainers said they are leaning toward a start in the San Felipe.

One runner expected to be scratched is Kelly Leak, the winner of an allowance race on turf last month. Feisty Suances, the winner of his first three starts, was considered "50-50" on Thursday. On Friday, trainer Darrell Vienna said Feisty Suances was likely to run.

The longshots Jeranimo and Shafted are expected to challenge Pioneerof the Nile, who is considered California's leading hope for the Kentucky Derby.

If Pioneerof the Nile's wins in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in December and the Grade 2 Robert Lewis Stakes here in February did not do enough to impress rival horsemen, or bettors, there is always trainer Bob Baffert.

"He looks cherry," Baffert said.

Owned by Zayat Stables, Pioneerof the Nile has earned his status by displaying an impressive stretch run that suggests he should thrive at longer distances as the year progresses.

The San Felipe is run over 1 1/16 miles, and is the final major prep for the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 4. In the Santa Anita Derby, Pioneerof the Nile will face The Pamplemousse, who has two graded stakes wins this year.

"We need a race for him, and we need to get him going for the big showdown," Baffert said of a meeting with The Pamplemousse.

Through the winter, Baffert said that Pioneerof the Nile has "matured."

"He's quieter and getting smarter," Baffert said. "At Hollywood, he got hot going to the gate. Now, he seems like he handles it pretty well."

Baffert tested Pioneerof the Nile's coolness when the Empire Maker colt was schooled during the Santa Anita Handicap program last Saturday. The day drew a crowd of more than 31,000.

"He handled the crowd," Baffert said.

In his two recent wins, Pioneerof the Nile has chased a modest pace and closed from three or four lengths behind the leaders to reach the front in the final furlong. He won the CashCall Futurity by a nose and the Robert Lewis by a half-length.

The form of both races has held up. I Want Revenge, second in the CashCall and third in the Lewis, was an emphatic winner of the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct last weekend, and is considered the leading contender for the Wood Memorial there on April 4. Papa Clem, the runner-up in the Lewis, will start in Saturday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

There is nothing of that caliber in the San Felipe field, among the expected scratch or the horses likely to run.

Kelly Leak is more likely for the WinStar Derby or Santa Anita Derby in coming weeks, trainer Mike Machowsky said. "I'm probably not running," he said.

He's Really Big has won his last two starts, and is making his stakes debut at some time this weekend.

New Bay has also been entered for Sunday's Pasadena Stakes. Trainer Richard Mandella considers New Bay to be a promising 3-year-old but is not as committed to the San Felipe as some trainers.

"I've entered back for Sunday and that race might be easier to bring him along," Mandella said. "I'd run Saturday if [Baffert] scratched. I'd do it for him, if I could."

A win by Jeranimo or Shafted would be a shock.

Jeranimo is making his stakes debut after finishing second in an allowance race on Feb. 26 in his third start.

"Obviously we lack on the seasoning scale, but he keeps moving forward," trainer Mike Pender said.

Shafted, trained by Mark Casse, was eighth in the Robert Lewis Stakes after winning an allowance race over 1 1/16 miles here on Jan. 2.

They pose a threat to Pioneerof the Nile in the sense that they will be lined up alongside of him in the starting gate. Baffert, for one, is already focusing on the future.

"This is when it's starting to heat up," Baffert said. "It's fun to be in this position."