03/12/2004 1:00AM

Baffert-haters have to hate this

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PHOENIX - You have heard for months now from the haters of trainer Bob Baffert, the naysayers who have come out of the woodwork to declare him stuck in the slow lane on the road to the Triple Crown. A man who has won three of the last seven Derbies, Baffert has been vilified, much like fellow trainer D. Wayne Lukas - more evidence that the wind blows hardest at the top of the mountain. While many in horse racing worship success, there are those, unfortunately, who root for failure.

But the critics have been slapped down lately. Last weekend, the Baffert-trained Consecrate ran third in the Grade 2 San Rafael, while his runner Wimbledon powered home to win the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. It still seems a reach at this stage to believe the newly gelded Consecrate is a Derby player, but it's not a stretch to feel that way about Wimbledon.

Facing winners for the first time, facing stakes horses for the first time, and shipping for the first time, Wimbledon overcame it all and won. And it wasn't so much that he won, but how he did it. Yes, the race set up well for him, but he showed not only enough acceleration to get position turning for home, but also another gear to blast through when the opportunity presented itself. The Beyer (101) continues his ascent. And don't you think the Derby pace would likely play into his hand, too?

That was me pounding on the table as Wimbledon stormed home, and me whooping it up and strutting around when he crossed the wire.

I had taken some heat in letters and references for my column earlier this year touting Wimbledon as a Derby threat, while he was still a maiden. We're certainly not there yet, but he's on the right path.

So, too, is Baffert. On Sunday he gets another chance, as he sends out Preachinatthebar and Odds On in the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita. While it's no secret he had always liked the potential of Wimbledon, it is interesting that the other horse frequently mentioned in the same breath was Odds On. A son of Silver Charm, Odds On romped by six lengths when he won his maiden, sprinting last summer. Then he was eased when favored in the Grade 2 Norfolk, and missed the rest of his 2-year-old season. He apparently had bad shins, but worked strongly this winter and recently came back with a smart sprint win. It wasn't the most powerful effort, but it certainly showed that he's back on track. And while his only other route try was a disaster, his pedigree says he can handle it.

Preachinatthebar looks more like Real Quiet Jr., and coincidentally carries the same silks. He's actually more proven than Odds On, and was more proven than Wimbledon - until last week - because of a couple good stakes efforts. He was a decent fourth to St Averil, Lucky Pulpit, and Master David in the Grade 2 Santa Catalina, then a game third to Master David and Borrego (who was second to Wimbledon last week), while finishing just ahead of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2-year-old Action This Day. Like Odds On, he's by Silver Charm. And like his sire and Real Quiet, he is a steady grinder who continues to see his Beyers escalate. His last four routes have Beyers of 79, 86, 96 and 97.

Can they handle Action This Day or St Averil in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe? Well, that's a tall order. Action This Day made a strong, sweeping move in the Sham only to flatten out a bit in the final furlong, looking very much like a horse who hadn't run in about four months. St Averil graduated in grand style last November, then was thrown into the deep end - but responded with a good second in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity to Lion Heart. He resurfaced here Jan. 17 and won the Grade 2 Santa Catalina, an effort flattered when third-place finisher Master David came back to win the Sham.

But Preachinatthebar is making progress the way I like to see it made at this time of year. He already has shown he can handle himself over a distance of ground and against good horses. Odds On, impressive though he may be, has yet to do either. And Preachinatthebar may well be the higher priced of the two, in the 5-1 range. It may not be Wimbledon all over again, but it wouldn't stun me in the least if it were that familiar grin and shock of white hair of Baffert's that we see in the winner's circle.

And don't some of you just hate that?