06/29/2001 11:00PM

Baptize disproves doubters in Classic

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - There were things to dislike about Baptize Saturday in the $200,000 Arlington Classic. The 3-year-old colt had just run a subpar race as the heavy favorite at Lone Star late last month.

The rumor mill swirled up a story - accurate it turned out - that the colt was fighting off a minor sickness late this week. But what Baptize had going for him, besides high-class natural ability on turf, was trainer Bill Mott, a grass stakes master who had won the Classic two of the last three years.

Make that three of four Classics for Team Mott, led in the Midwest by assistant trainer Ralph Nicks. With Mark Guidry aboard, Baptize bulled his way into contention a half-mile into the race and sustained his run through the stretch of the nine-furlong Classic, beating the graded stakes winner Indygo Shiner by 2 1/4-lengths to take the Grade 2 Classic, the first leg of Arlington's Mid-America Triple.

Baptize, who had never missed the board in eight turf races while winning four times, earned his overdue first graded stakes win for owners Gary and Mary West.

Fan Club's Mister took the lead at the start of the Classic, but Rahy's Secret and Indygo Shiner were quick to challenge him. The leaders took their time getting around the first turn.

After a quarter-mile in 24.20 seconds, Baptize had waited long enough and rushed up to challenge.

"That was the horse, man," Guidry said of Baptize's early move. "I didn't want to move that quick."

The Classic became a three-horse battle around the far turn, with Fan Club's Mister battling on along the rail and Indygo Shiner, the Jefferson Cup winner, wedged inside Baptize. Guidry began pumping his arms turning for home as Baptize wound up for his stretch punch, and went to a strong left-handed whip shortly thereafter as Baptize edged clear of Indygo Shiner, who was all out to hold second over the late-running Cherokee Kim and a game Fan Club's Mister.

Baptize, taking heavy betting action in the final minutes before post time, paid $4.20 as the heavy favorite and was clocked in 1:48.80 over a firm turf course.

"Mott and Ralph and them, they keep sending bears up here," Guidry said.

But this bear was in danger of missing his engagement as late as Thursday. Baptize "coughed a couple times" on Thursday morning, Nicks said, and had his condition not improved by the next day, the van trip to Arlington would have been cancelled.