LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Five minutes … 15 minutes … 45 minutes.
The longer Bob Baffert talked, the larger his audience grew. A dozen reporters, young and old, leaned forward, listening to every word near Barn 33 on Churchill Downs' backside.
Funny. Humble. Relaxed.
If Baffert, 56, had any concerns about synthetic-surface specialist Pioneerof the Nile in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, he wasn't letting on. Not once did he say "if," an iffy proposition for the Empire Maker colt making his first start on dirt.
"I've never had a 3-year-old so happy to see dirt since Bode (Baffert's son) was playing in the sandbox for the first time," Baffert said of Pioneerof the Nile, whose name is a nod to owner Ahmed Zayat's Egyptian roots and three words because thoroughbred names can be only 18 characters, including spaces and punctuation.
"I think he's going to be fine. This horse has adapted to every surface. Back in October, I was worried about him being a bit high-strung. He's really learned to relax. The motor is there. The distance capabilities are there. But (horses) have to have a good mind and be able to handle the pressure."
Pioneerof the Nile, who wears the turquoise and gold silks of Zayat Stables, the nation's top owner in purse earnings in 2008, has looked superb on Churchill Downs' main track. The 4-1 co-second favorite galloped 11/2 miles Wednesday morning.
All eight of Pioneerof the Nile's lifetime starts have been on synthetic and turf surfaces. Zayat said his dark bay colt mirrors Street Sense, the only Tampa Bay Downs graduate to win the Derby (2007). Both won Grade I races at ages 2 and 3. Pioneerof the Nile's Grade I wins, both in California, came in the CashCal Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 20 and Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park on April 4, his last start.
The Kentucky-bred horse will be Zayat's third Kentucky Derby starter. Last year, Z Fortune was 10th and Z Humor, beaten favorite in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, finished 12th.
"This (year) is a different feeling," Zayat said. "I'm coming here with a horse — this is a 1¼-mile race — that separates the men from the boys.
"He's bred to handle the distance. He looks phenomenal. He loves it here. He's doing all the right things."
Empire Maker won the 1½-mile Belmont in 2003 and finished second in the Derby. Pioneerof the Nile's dam, Star of Goshen, was a Grade III winner of the 1997 La Troienne Stakes, a 7-furlong race that has been renamed the Eight Belles Stakes and is on Saturday's undercard.
Pioneerof the Nile, a $290,000 purchase at the Keeneland September 2007 yearling sale, is unbeaten in four starts under Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner who replaced Bill Mott as conditioner. He also has two Grade II wins, Robert B. Lewis and San Felipe, both at Santa Anita. He has defeated Derby 3-1 favorite I Want Revenge in two meetings.
Garrett Gomez will be aboard.
"I've got myself convinced that he's going to like (dirt)," Baffert said. "I like the way he's training. He looks fantastic."