04/01/2004 12:00AM

Two colts on the rise, but one is primed

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It was the middle of February, only a few days after Wimbledon crushed maidens by eight lengths, and trainer Bob Baffert was showing off the tall gray colt to a visitor at his barn.

"I finally have him where I want him," Baffert said, "now all I have to do is punch his ticket."

That would be a reservation for Churchill Downs. It seemed a long way off for Wimbledon, who days earlier was merely a hyped-up maiden - the beaten favorite in all four starts. Yet even with spring right around the corner and Wimbledon still winless, Baffert remained confident.

He had good reason. He knew what the colt had in him. Three months earlier on Nov. 19 at Santa Anita, Baffert put Julie Krone up for a seven-furlong work that would be Wimbledon's final major drill before his Nov. 30 comeback. Jaws dropped as he uncorked a 21.80-second quarter-mile in the middle of the work, and sizzled the seven-furlong distance in 1:22.60. Baffert had him in 1:21 and change.

The trainer was dumbfounded. "I've never had a horse work like that. I said, this horse is a freak of nature. I bought his mother the next day."

Wimbledon continued to lose, three more times, before he reproduced the brilliant workout in the heat of battle on Feb. 8 at Santa Anita. That day, he blasted maidens by eight lengths, earned a breakthrough Beyer Figure of 98, and established himself as a serious Derby candidate, finally.

The next question was how Baffert would get the colt into the Kentucky Derby; Wimbledon needed graded stakes earnings to be assured a Derby berth. He found the spot March 7 at Fair Grounds, where he won the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby with a perfect trip and an improved Beyer Figure of 101. Whether he wins or loses the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, Wimbledon is on his way to Churchill Downs. His ticket is punched.

The pressure is off, and early this week Baffert could afford to joke around with Rock Hard Ten's trainer, Jason Orman. Baffert told Orman, loosely translated, that he hopes Rock Hard Ten does not make Wimbledon look "too bad" Saturday.

The comment was in jest, yet the message was clear. Many consider Rock Hard Ten to be the most probable winner. They are right - Rock Hard Ten should win the Santa Anita Derby.

Handicappers are encouraged to be skeptical of horses born with a silver spoon. Reputation must always take a backseat to proven ability. But it is dismissive to knock Rock Hard Ten, the winner of just two starts. The hype began on Rock Hard Ten before he started. Despite glowing reviews by private clockers, he paid $14.80 winning his Feb. 7 debut in a seven-furlong race that earned an impressive Beyer Figure of 101.

Rock Hard Ten had just two workouts in the month following his maiden win, yet he stretched out to two turns March 3 and won with another good number - a Beyer of 99. More important, the Quirin-style pace figure he earned jumped from 94 to 106. (In approximate terms, a pace figure is a speed figure to the quarter pole.) The 106 remains slightly below the 110 par, but Rock Hard Ten clearly is getting close.

"It's not just that he won the two races, but how he won the two races," Orman said, recognizing that it is unusual for a horse to win the Santa Anita Derby in his third career start. "He might just be that good of a horse."

Make no mistake - Rock Hard Ten is not there yet. He must improve Saturday to win, and bettors need to look back only one year for evidence that horses do not always improve as expected. Atswhatimtalknbout was hammered to 3-2 despite ordinary figures going in. He finished fourth.

Rock Hard Ten, however, is a better colt than last year's favorite, and Orman has turned up the heat in morning workouts following his allowance win. A big, good-looking horse with an exceptionally long stride, Rock Hard Ten has worked three times since he raced - an easy five-eighths, a seven-furlong work March 20 in 1:24.40 that had clockers raving, followed by a sensational five-furlong workout Tuesday in 58.40 seconds.

Rock Hard Ten has been trained to run the best race of his brief career Saturday, and his workouts hint that he will deliver on the promise.

The median Beyer earned by Santa Anita Derby winners from 1993 to 2003 is 106, which would represent a seven-point leap from Rock Hard Ten's last win. Yet there may be no other starter more qualified to make the jump. As for the others, there are flaws.

Wimbledon needs only to be finishing well to move on to the Kentucky Derby. He does not need to win, or even run the best race of his career, on Saturday. Baffert is saving that for May 1.

St Averil and Imperialism appear most vulnerable among the low-odds contenders. St Averil is wheeling back just 20 days after a tough loss in the San Felipe, and after four starts his Quirin-style pace figures remain below par. Imperialism has been flattered by wicked pace scenarios both recent wins. The stretch-runner deserves accolades for capitalizing on the opportunity, but he is playing a different game Saturday.

Lucky Pulpit and Quintons Gold Rush each possesses enough tactical speed to be in contention turning for home. A longshot bettor could do worse. Castledale continues to train well on dirt, but based on his two U.S. starts, he remains well below the contenders on raw ability.

Rock Hard Ten's odds will be somewhere between 5-2 and 3-1. It's a square price - nothing more - on a talented colt trained for the performance of his career in the race to which he has aimed for weeks.

Rock Hard Ten, to win. Now that's a ticket that anyone can punch.