It’s tough enough trying to handicap the Kentucky Derby without the added guessing game of whether the synthetic horses can successfully transfer their form to dirt.

There’s no doubt Pioneerof the Nile, the Empire Maker colt who gave trainer Bob Baffert his record fifth Santa Anita Derby victory April 4, should be among the favorites when the horses load into the starting gate May 2.

But will he be as successful over Churchill Downs’ main surface as he has been on Cushion Track and Pro-Ride?

“He beat us twice and we’ve run against him twice, so I am scared of him,” said David Lanzman, co-owner of another of the Derby favorites, I Want Revenge. “I’d be stupid not to be. But I wouldn’t trade positions with anybody.

“We’ve answered a big question by running over the dirt and running the way we did, and he’s not going to be able to answer that question until May.

I Want Revenge was runner-up to Pioneerof the Nile in last December’s $750,000 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park. He finished third, behind Pioneerof the Nile and Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem, in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 7 at Santa Anita before shipping east to continue Derby preparations.

Since switching to the dirt at Aqueduct, I Want Revenge has been the most impressive of the Derby hopefuls, winning the Gotham Stakes by an eye-opening 8 1/2Â lengths March 7 and then overcoming a terrible start and traffic trouble in the stretch to win the Wood Memorial on April 4 like he’d had a clean trip.

He and Pioneerof the Nile are just two of four California horses that figure prominently in the Derby, joining Papa Clem and Chocolate Candy, the latter of whom won two stakes over Golden Gate Fields’ Tapeta synthetic surface this year before finishing second to Pioneerof the Nile in the Santa Anita Derby.

But Chocolate Candy, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, is another who has never raced on dirt. All nine of his career starts have come in California. It’s debatable whether his closing kick will be as effective at Churchill Downs as it has been on artificial surfaces.

Ahmed Zayat, Pioneerof the Nile’s owner, doesn’t think the dirt will be a detriment to his colt, pointing out that his sire finished second in the Derby and won the Belmont. His dam won by 11 1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs in record time.

“And his trainer really likes dirt better,” Baffert cracked.

Here’s a look at our top five heading into Derby week:

1. I Want Revenge: If this son of Stephen Got Even runs back to his New York form, it’s all over. His victory in the Wood, when he lost four or five lengths at the start, was one of the most impressive Derby preps in years.

Of course, he might also have had a fondness for Aqueduct, meaning he won’t run like a monster at Churchill. Point Given, who won the Preakness and Belmont in 2001 and wound up Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old, didn’t fire on Derby Day and wound up fifth.

2. Pioneerof the Nile: If Garrett Gomez doesn’t opt for this guy over Dunkirk as his Derby mount, it will be a surprise. But Baffert doesn’t seem too concerned over the uncertainty.

“If Gomez doesn’t ride him, I might go down to Los Alamitos and find a jockey down there,” he joked.

3. Friesan Fire: The Louisiana Derby winner will go into the Derby off a seven-week layoff, which could prove beneficial. He might be fresher than many of the other colts.

Oh, and the horse the A.P. Indy colt beat at the Fair Grounds on March 14?

Papa Clem, who gained more supporters with his victory in the Arkansas Derby last weekend.

4. Quality Road: A quarter crack in his right hind foot doesn’t figure to cost the Florida Derby winner a start in the Kentucky Derby, according to foot specialist Ian McKinlay, who treated Big Brown’s famous quarter crack before last year’s Belmont Stakes and is watching over Quality Road.

The fact it cropped up a month before the Derby and not a week before the big race like Big Brown’s also plays in Quality Road’s favor.

5. Chocolate Candy: The son of Candy Ride’s closing style is perfect for the Derby if he proves he can handle the dirt.



In addition to the big four of Pioneerof the Nile, I Want Revenge, Papa Clem and Chocolate Candy, two other California-based colts – Square Eddie and Mr. Hot Stuff, third in the Santa Anita Derby – also have Kentucky Derby aspirations. “It just shows you the quality of horses in California is pretty strong … there’s a lot of nice horses, and this is a tough Derby field,” said BobBaffert, trainer of Pioneerof the Nile. “There are six, seven, eight horses there … I think it’s going to be a very competitive race. I’m just glad that I’m part of the top five.”

Former jockey Gary Stevens, winner of three Kentucky Derbies during his Hall of Fame career, agrees with Baffert that this is a nice batch of 3-year-olds. “I think it’s an outstanding crop,” he said. “At the top of my list right now I’ve got I Want Revenge, Friesan Fire … Quality Road ran huge the other day. It’s as good a 3-year-old crop at this point in time as I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s a quality bunch.” Stevens, a racing analyst for NBC and Horse Racing TV, said he doesn’t miss riding. “Not so much, because of that adrenaline rush of doing live shows,” he said. “It’s the same feeling, and I know when I’ve done a good job and I know when I’ve done an OK job and I know when I’ve done a poor job the same way as when I rode.”

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