Wimbledon raises racket in Derby picture

La. Derby victor widens Baffert's Kentucky options

Horse Racing

March 08, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Bob Baffert says the same thing every winter: Don't get excited until the Kentucky Derby contenders start racing 1 1/8 miles. If that's the case, then the fun begins Saturday with the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in South Florida.

The California-based Baffert knows his way along the Kentucky Derby trail. He has won three, and he uncovered another contender yesterday in Wimbledon, surprise winner of the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

The Louisiana Derby doesn't fit Baffert's criteria for a significant Kentucky Derby prep. It's a race of 1 1/16 miles, while the Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles. But the Fair Grounds' long stretch - the longest in North America - is a demanding test for a developing 3-year-old.

Wimbledon charged down it authoritatively, looking as if he could run farther and surging into the Triple Crown Ratings at sixth place. But looks can be deceiving when trying to evaluate Derby potential in March. Watch for Wimbledon next in the Santa Anita Derby or Wood Memorial. Both are 1 1/8 miles.

Wimbledon's victory in his first stakes appearance, and Imperialism's upset of the previously undefeated Lion Heart the day before in the San Rafael Stakes, demonstrate again that unpredictability is usually the rule of thumb in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby. Imperialism's triumph in his 14th start gained a No. 10 ranking.

That said, a pillar of predictability will be center stage in the Florida Derby. Read the Footnotes, ranked No. 2, is a New York-bred trained by a little-known New York-based trainer who has never saddled a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Sound familiar? Rewind one year to Barclay Tagg and Funny Cide.

Rick Violette trains Read the Footnotes, a son of the champion sprinter Smoke Glacken. The 1 1/8 miles of the Florida Derby would seem out of his reach. But Read the Footnotes is one of the few Kentucky Derby contenders who has already won at the distance. He captured the 1 1/8 -mile Remsen Stakes last fall at Aqueduct.

Despite its prestige and $1 million purse, the Florida Derby seems to be attracting a meager field. A mere six trainers have committed their horses.

Two of the most intriguing are the seven-ranked Tapit and the unranked The Cliff's Edge. Tapit would be the first Kentucky Derby starter for the Maryland trainer Michael Dickinson. After Tapit's public workout 12 days ago at Laurel Park, Dickinson said the colt, who has raced only twice (winning both), would be fit enough to run in the Florida Derby but not to win it.

The Cliff's Edge could cement his place in trainer Nick Zito's powerful lineup. Zito handles the top-rated Birdstone and the third-ranked Eurosilver. He's managing both carefully.

In California, Halfbridled, the 2-year-old filly champion, will make her 3-year-old debut Saturday in the Santa Anita Oaks. She's undefeated after four races. Richard Mandella, her trainer, has not ruled out the Kentucky Derby.

Ratings

Ranking the top 10 Triple Crown contenders (No. shows total starts, followed by first-, second- and third-place finishes):

Horse Trainer Jockey No. 1-2-3 Last Race Next Race

1. Birdstone Nick Zito J. Bailey 4 3-0-0 Gulfstream allow. (1st) Lane's End

2. Read the Footnotes R. Violette J. Bailey 6 5-0-0 Ftn. of Youth (1st) Florida Derby

3. Eurosilver N. Zito J. Castellano 4 3-1-0 Gulfstream allow. (1st) Swale Stakes

4. Action This Day R. Mandella D. Flores 4 2-1-0 Sham Stakes (4th) San Felipe Stakes

5. Eddington M. Hennig J. Bailey 4 2-2-0 Gulfstream allow. (1st) Gotham

6. Wimbledon B. Baffert J. Santiago 6 2-3-0 Louisiana Derby (1st) S.A. Derby/Wood

7. Tapit M. Dickinson R. Dominguez 2 2-0-0 Laurel Futurity (1st) Florida Derby

8. Swingforthefences R. Violette E. Prado 4 2-1-1 Gulfstream allow. (1st) Tampa Bay Derby

9. Value Plus T. Pletcher J. Velasquez 5 2-1-0 Gulfstream allow. (1st) Florida Derby

10. Imperialism K. Nuhall V. Espinoza 14 5-3-1 San Rafael Stakes (1st) San Anita Derby

Triple Crown panel: Bill Christine, Los Angeles Times; Dave Joseph, South Florida Sun-Sentinel; Tom Keyser, The Sun; Neil Milbert, Chicago Tribune; Paul Moran, Newsday.

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