12/15/2007 12:00AM

Sterwins settles early, then rallies

EmailSterwins might have been his own worst enemy last year. According to Malcolm Pierce, who took over Sterwins's training this year, Sterwins was too eager to get his game on, and didn't relax properly early in his races, only to be found wanting late. But a more mature Sterwins could hardly have rated more kindly on Saturday at Fair Grounds, overcoming a wide journey to win the $60,000 Buddy Diliberto Memorial Handicap by a widening length.

Sterwins ($8.20), a 4-year-old Runaway Groom colt bred by Eugene Melnyk and owned by Melnyk Racing Stable, won his first open stakes in the Diliberto, beating Optimer, who finished second, and Save Big Money, who ran late for third. Island Warrior, making his turf debut, set the pace and held well for a close fourth.

Sterwins, meanwhile, broke from post 9 under Miguel Mena, and never was able to find a spot on the inside. Mena held his midpack position as Island Warrior carved out fractions of 24.17 seconds for the opening quarter mile, and 49.30 to the half. Jockeying for position commenced going into the far turn, but Mena kept Sterwins in the clear, making his real move just before the quarter pole.

Not too long ago, Sterwins might have pulled his way up into a pace battle with Island Warrior, but now, he waits for his rider's cue. And when Mena asked Sterwins for his best in upper stretch, Sterwins gave it. Wandering briefly toward the middle of the track, Sterwins straightened out and was clearly going best in the final furlong.

Sterwins gave Mena his second stakes win of the meet. Pierce has won the Diliberto two years in a row, having captured last season's edition with Devilment. Sterwins was timed in 1:44.86 for 1 1/16 miles over firm turf.