LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Jeff Mullins pulled I Want Revenge out of California this winter, sending him to run on dirt in New York. Bob Baffert stayed put on the synthetic surface with Pioneerof the Nile, and the colt racked up four consecutive victories.
Now the West Coast’s two top horses are headed toward a showdown in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
Coming off eye-catching victories in the Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, I Want Revenge was made the early 3-1 favorite for the 1 1/4 -mile Derby after drawing the No. 13 post position Wednesday.
“I kind of left it up to the owners to pick,” Mullins said. “I’m just going to concentrate on getting him ready and getting him there safe. We’re here to play and hope our horse stays healthy and everyone has a nice trip.”
The last of four Derby winners from the 13th spot was Smarty Jones in 2004.
“It ended up perfect,” I Want Revenge’s 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo said. “It’s just what we wanted – to be outside of the early speed. I think it worked out great.”
Pioneerof the Nile and Dunkirk were named the co-second favorites at 4-1. Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile drew the No. 16 post, while lightly raced Dunkirk will be next door in 15.
Hall of Famer Baffert carried his 4-year-old son, Bode, to the post position board, where the child named for Olympic skier Bode Miller hung Pioneerof the Nile’s silks.
“I was set on 10 or 16,” Baffert said. “He hasn’t had that dirt experience. He’ll get less dirt kicked on him out there than on the inside.”
Pioneerof the Nile has trained well over Churchill Downs’ sandy loam surface this week despite never having raced on dirt.
His breeding suggests he can succeed on the surface. His father, Empire Maker, finished second to Funny Cide in the 2003 Derby, then went on to spoil Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid by winning the Belmont Stakes.
If he does win the Derby, Mullins won’t be around on Sunday. That’s when his seven-day suspension by New York authorities begins for illegally administering an over-the-counter substance to another one of his horses in a security barn at Aqueduct the day I Want Revenge won the Wood.
Mullins said he made an honest mistake and blamed it on not knowing New York’s rules.