03/09/2004 12:00AM

One pretender is revealed

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LAS VEGAS - I always suspected that Lion Heart, a son of high-speed influence Tale of the Cat, was a miler and never a Kentucky Derby contender, but after last weekend's San Rafael Stakes, it is now official.

Away since his Hollywood Futurity score on Dec. 20, Lion Heart was rank and never rated down the backstretch, pushing the fast fractions of Hosco (by Honour and Glory) all the way. While game in defeat, he hardly looks like a colt who will be a factor beyond 1 1/8 miles.

Lion Heart's class and heart almost got him the victory, which speaks poorly for the rest of the field. Imperialism (by Langfuhr), who was coming off a victory in the San Vicente Stakes, was the only horse to take advantage of the hot pace and just got up to defeat Lion Heart by a neck. But before anyone gets too excited about Imperialism, it must be noted that Lion Heart finished the last quarter in a pedestrian 26 seconds, and the race was screaming for a late closer.

Quintons Gold Rush, making only his third career start, finished fourth after a wide trip for the entire mile. This is a talented colt who had to benefit from this race. A son of emerging stallion Wild Rush (also the sire of the Louisiana Derby winner, Wimbledon), he has plenty of room for improvement, and his next race will be the deciding factor whether he continues on the Derby trail or is allowed to develop for major races later in the year.

As for the San Rafael also-rans:

Hosco (5th): His sire, Honour and Glory, was a premier miler (Metropolitan Handicap, etc.) who finished 18th in the 1996 Kentucky Derby. By Honour and Glory and out of a mare by Carson City, Hosco should stick to sprinting.

Castledale (6th): There is no doubt that Castledale will love 1 1/4 miles, but not on dirt. By one of Nureyev's best runners, champion Peintre Celebre, and out of a mare by Silver Hawk, this is a colt with a big future on grass. Hopefully, he will be pointed for such races as the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes.

Wimplestiltskin (7th): Fourth in the San Vicente Stakes, Wimplestiltskin is by Petionville out of a mare by a speed influence, It's Freezing, and should be kept to distances up to 1 1/16 miles.

Lucky Pulpit (8th): Pulpit is a versatile stallion, getting winners on all surfaces, but many of his runners show their best on turf, and Lucky Pulpit - whose damsire is grass champion Cozzene - should be prepared for a grass campaign.

Spellbinder (9th): By Tale of the Cat (the sire of Lion Heart), Spellbinder is a half-brother to a Futurity Stakes winner, Whywhywhy, and is a sprinter/miler. Not in the same league as stablemates Action This Day and Minister Eric, he should be kept to distances up to 1 1/16 miles.

Hasslefree (10th): He was making his first start since finishing a well-beaten sixth in the Hopeful Stakes last August, and is by a sprinter/miler, Forestry, and out of a mare by a speed influence, Time for a Change. The two-turn San Rafael was an ambitious placement for a colt off a long layoff. He should be kept sprinting in races like the Riva Ridge and King's Bishop Stakes.

Roses for Wimbledon?

In contrast to the San Rafael, the Louisiana Derby showcased a budding star in Wimbledon. The Louisiana Derby was expected to be another notch on Gradepoint's

(A.P. Indy) belt, but it turned out to be a coming-out party for Wimbledon (Wild Rush). It took Wimbledon five starts to finally get his act together to win a maiden race on Feb. 8, and he swiftly moved to another level with an authoritative victory in the Louisiana Derby.

His sire, Wild Rush, an exceptionally handsome son of Wild Again, was only a second-tier 3-year-old, winning the 1997 Illinois and Remington Park derbies and the La Puente Stakes. He was also third to Free House and Deputy Commander in the Swaps Stakes. But Wild Rush matured into a major stakes winner at 4, winning the Carter, Kentucky Cup Classic, and most importantly, the Metropolitan Handicap, often referred to as a "stallion-making" race. Unfortunately, Wild Rush was sold to foreign interests and now stands in Japan. In addition to Wimbledon and Quintons Gold Rush, Wild Rush's second crop includes last year's Canadian 2-year-old champion, Judith's Wild Rush, Fencelineneighbor and Hollywood Story.

Wimbledon, always regarded as the number one 3-year-old colt in Bob Baffert's arsenal, is finally living up to his trainer's high regard. Wimbledon has a pedigree top-heavy with speed influences with very few stamina points, but Baffert won the Kentucky Derby with War Emblem, whose pedigree also lacked any significant sources of stamina. Three-year-olds can develop rapidly this time of year, and with Baffert at the controls, Wimbledon's star is rising quickly despite his pedigree.

Two of A.P. Indy's highly regarded runners, Gradepoint and Shaniko, showed little in the Louisiana Derby, and their next starts will determine their Kentucky Derby status. Gradepoint did encounter traffic at the top of the stretch, but showed nothing when he got clear. It may just be a case of throwing in a dull performance, as his stablemate, Breakaway, who finished fourth, is considered to be inferior to Gradepoint. Stretching out beyond 1 1/16 miles will only benefit Gradepoint, and despite his disconcerting performance, it is premature to jump ship just after one dull effort.