Kentucky Derby

Pioneerof the Nile rewards his owner's commitment

LOUISVILLE — At the time, it seemed an awfully large price to pay for having second thoughts.

In the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale, a dark bay colt known as hip No. 458 was among the horses to be sold by Zayat Stables during the world's largest Thoroughbred auction.

With Pioneerof the Nile's pedigree and good looks, there was little doubt the final price would end up well into the six-figure range. But once owner Ahmed Zayat saw the son of Empire Maker for himself, he decided this was one prospect he didn't want to let go.

"We put him in the sale and, at that point, said Mr. Zayat hadn't seen him," Sobhy Sonbol, vice president of Zayat Stables. "He saw him for the first time and said, 'What the hell are you putting that horse in the sale for? Buy him back.' So I just kept on bidding until I bought him back."

Ultimately, Sonbol signed the ticket for $290,000 to keep the horse they had bred.

Of all the judgement calls Zayat has made in the auction arena, that one might go down as his best yet.

With his multiple Grade I wins, the colt now known as Pioneerof the Nile has more than justified Zayat's gut reaction and will try to give his connections the ultimate achievement at the Kentucky Derby.

Since forming his racing stable in 2005, Zayat has used his astute purchases — at public auction and at private sales — to form an operation that has produced two previous Derby starters and that led the nation in earnings in 2008.

But in Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile, Zayat has his first ever homebred, having bought his dam, Star of Goshen, while she was in foal to Empire Maker three years ago.

"It's very special because, every time he wins, there is a whole family behind it," Sonbol said. "We bought the mare because we have a horse called Forefathers (a half-brother to Pioneerof the Nile), and we loved him so much that we wanted to go buy the entire family.

"When (Pioneerof the Nile) was born, he was a big horse, about 145 pounds. And he was picture perfect."

Pioneerof the Nile's start in life might have been idyllic, but the horse who might go down as Zayat's greatest success story nearly became one of the operation's worst tragedies.

When he was just a month old, Pioneerof the Nile suffered a severe bout of colic and, months later, he had to have more surgery because of scar tissue in the intestinal wall.

"He had colic surgery just a few weeks after he was born; he almost died," Sonbol said. "Everyone told me those belly surgeries are going to take a while to get over and will hinder their progress, but he was the first one of my 2-year-olds last year to get ready."

Despite being a May foal, Pioneerof the Nile showed enough maturity to break his maiden in his second time out over the turf at Saratoga last August, before running third in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland.

"There was a 61/2-furlong dirt race that was supposed to go (at Saratoga) that didn't go so that's why he tried him on turf," Sonbol said. "But, at the beginning, we thought he was a dirt horse."

After his fifth-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where he was beaten by 23/4 lengths, the colt was transferred from trainer Bill Mott to the barn of Bob Baffert on the West Coast so he could remain on the synthetic surfaces in California.

That decision paid immediate dividends because Pioneerof the Nile ended his juvenile campaign with a narrow win over eventual Wood Memorial victor I Want Revenge in the Grade I CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in December.

The millionaire colt hasn't lost since, winning the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes, the Grade II San Felipe, and the Grade I Santa Anita Derby in three starts this season.

"This horse has a lot of fight in him," Baffert said after working the colt 5 furlongs in 1:01 in his final pre-Derby move on Monday. "He has the heart, he has the ability, he has the pedigree. He is a May foal, but he's done everything early in his life."

The one question still looming over Pioneerof the Nile is how he will handle a dirt surface come race day.

But as his connections are quick to point out, there is a reason they have battled more than once to keep from losing him.

"I think he's become a different horse now," Sonbol said. "That's what I love, is there is so much room for improvement. He still hasn't shown anything that he is capable of."