Updated on 09/17/2011 2:10PM

Baffert aces La. Derby with Wimbledon

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Lou Hodges, Jr.
Wimbledon hits the wire under Javier Santiago 2 1/4 lengths clear in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on Sunday.

NEW ORLEANS - For months, Wimbledon trained like a top-class colt, but underachieved in the afternoon. Those closest to him never lost faith that he would finally race to his potential, and on Sunday at Fair Grounds, he did.

Wimbledon, making his stakes debut in the $600,000 , burst between horses at the top of the stretch and went on to a 2 1/4-length victory over another California invader, Borrego, in the Grade 2 race for 3-year-olds.

Pollard's Vision was third, only a head behind Borrego, and three-quarters of a length in front of fourth-place Breakaway. Fire Slam, the winner of this track's Lecomte Stakes, was fifth. Gradepoint, who won the Risen Star Stakes and raced coupled with Breakaway for trainer Neil Howard, finished eighth in the field of 11.

A torrid early pace - 22.48 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 45.27 seconds for a half-mile - set the race up for the late runners, including Wimbledon. But Wimbledon also benefited from a patient ride from jockey Javier Santiago, who kept his cool and waited for room when Wimbledon was surrounded by rivals on the final turn.

After finding an opening at the top of the lane, Wimbledon took charge. A large colt with a mammoth stride, Wimbledon was well-suited to the long stretch at Fair Grounds. He completed 1 1/16 miles on the fast main track in 1:42.71.

"I think he just punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby," said his trainer, Bob Baffert.

Santiago, a 26-year-old native of Puerto Rico, only recently arrived in this country. He is based in California, where Baffert has put him on several live mounts. Santiago, who speaks little English, said through an interpreter that he had a sore neck following a frightening accident on Saturday at Santa Anita, when his horses clipped the heels of a runner ridden by Corey Nakatani.

"I took a shot in my neck in California before I came here," he said.

Baffert trains Wimbledon for Jim McIngvale, the Houston, Tx., furniture magnate known as "Mattress Mac." They purchased Wimbledon, a colt by Wild Rush, in Feb. 2003 at a 2-year-old-in-training sale in Florida.

Wimbledon was favored in his first five starts, but not until his fifth race, his first with Santiago, did he win. That eight-length victory against maidens at Santa Anita on Feb. 8 convinced Baffert that Wimbledon was at last coming around, and he aggressively sent him right to the Louisiana Derby.

Wimbledon was sent off as the fifth choice and paid $16.40.

Baffert said Wimbledon would race once more, perhaps in the April 10 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, prior to the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

Fire Slam ran a remarkable race to finish fifth after being involved in the hot early pace. "It was a suicidal pace," said his trainer, David Carroll. "Can he not handle the distance, or those horses? I don't know. There's a lot of unanswered questions. When I saw the pace, I knew there was no way he could win."

The biggest disappointment was Gradepoint, who was sent off the 2-1 favorite with Breakaway.

"I couldn't have asked for a better pace," said his jockey, Robby Albarado. "He just was kind of flat turning for home, and he was very flat the last eighth of a mile."

-Additional reporting by Marcus Hersh