01/14/2008 1:00AM

Air Commander nips Johnny Eves at 52-1


Air Commander, long considered a stakes prospect by trainer Bob Baffert, finally lived up to that expectation in Saturday's $200,000 San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita, but only by the slimmest margin.

The second-longest shot in the field, Air Commander ($106.80) outfinished pacesetter Johnny Eves, winning the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes by a nose. The winning time of 1:40.16 was the second-fastest clocking for 1 1/16 miles since the Cushion Track synthetic track was installed last summer. The track record of 1:39.58 was set earlier on the card by Zappa in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap.

Air Commander won his first stakes in the San Fernando, the third win of his eight-race career. Ridden by Aaron Gryder, Air Commander was second to Johnny Eves for most of the race, tracking the leader by one to two lengths through fractions of 23.27 and 46.38 seconds.

Air Commander moved into contention on the outside of Johnny Eves in the stretch and won by the bob of a head.

"I thought he got beat," Baffert said. "He showed gameness. Last year, he was a big clown and he was all over the track. We had high expectations and he's coming around. He's kind of a one-paced horse with a high cruising speed."

Johnny Eves, the winner of the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes over seven furlongs here on Dec. 26, finished 1 1/4 lengths in front of Tiago, the 7-5 favorite in the field of 11.

Tiago, making his first start since finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park in October, was fifth on the backstretch and was within two lengths at the top off the stretch. He could not close the margin in the final quarter-mile.

"It's his first race back," jockey Mike Smith said. "He'll get better from it."

Baffert said he was happy to have Gryder aboard Air Commander, who races for the partnership of Robert Clay and Faisal Salman.

"I was having trouble getting a rider for him," Baffert said. "He needs a strong rider."

Air Commander has earned $248,680.