03/31/2004 12:00AM

Wimbledon may be McIngvale's ace

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Wimbledon will try to follow up his Louisiana Derby win with a victory at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Jim McIngvale likes people to laugh at the commercials he makes for his Houston furniture store because people remember them. When he first got into the horse racing business eight years ago, people laughed at him, too. But not for the right reasons.

McIngvale sank considerable capital into his operation, then tried to micromanage the business, driving away or firing a series of trainers. Starting with Nick Zito, McIngvale went through trainers as quickly as the stock that flies out of his Gallery Furniture showroom.

Steve Moyers quit in a disagreement with McIngvale's sister-in-law, who had been installed as McIngvale's racing manager. Leonard Atkinson, who had been a night watchman at the stable, was hired as a trainer. Jack Van Berg came aboard, then McIngvale gave his horses back to Atkinson. Every move was duly reported in trade publications, which contributed to McIngvale earning the reputation in racing circles as being wealthy, enthusiastic, and clueless.

Of the early criticism, McIngvale now says, "It probably was really well-deserved. I tampered with something I didn't know anything about."

Expensive though they may have been, he did learn his lessons. McIngvale still puts up his money to buy horses, but now leaves the management and training to the professionals. Not surprisingly, this has yielded considerably better results. His stable includes Louisiana Derby winner Wimbledon, who will attempt to solidify his position as a leading contender for the May 1 Kentucky Derby in Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

Wimbledon drew post 3 when a field of seven was entered on Wednesday morning for the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby. Imperialism and Lucky Pulpit are to his inside, with Castledale, Quintons Gold Rush, Rock Hard Ten, and St Averil outside him. Wimbledon was installed as the 5-2 favorite on the morning line set by Jeff Tufts of Santa Anita.

The Santa Anita Derby is the eighth race on an 11-race card that begins at noon Pacific time. The race will be shown live on a 90-minute ESPN telecast that begins at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.

Should Wimbledon win, he very likely could end up the favorite in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager - which closes on Sunday - and the Kentucky Derby itself. But this spring has been punctuated by poor performances by well-regarded Derby prospects, a trend Wimbledon will try to reverse.

"It's the balloon-busting time of year," said Wimbledon's trainer, Bob Baffert. "He's become a much more professional horse. He looks happy."

Wimbledon, a tall, willowy horse, is not impressive when he jogs or lightly gallops, but when he stretches his long legs in works and races, his talent comes out. It took him a while to catch on, though. Wimbledon did not beat maidens until his fifth career start, but he jumped from that race straight into the Louisiana Derby.

"We were trying to figure out his style," Baffert said. "Before he broke his maiden, we kept messing with him, putting blinkers on him, taking them off, putting him on the lead, taking him back."

McIngvale, 52, underwent similar trial and error with his trainers before settling on Baffert. He was guided to Baffert by J.B. and Kevin McKathan, the Florida brothers who buy horses for McIngvale and have purchased a number of top horses for Baffert, including Kentucky Derby winners Real Quiet and Silver Charm.

The McKathans bought Wimbledon for McIngvale for $425,000 at a 2-year-olds in training sale in February 2003. McIngvale has a dozen horses with Baffert, and another 10, all 2-year-olds, are headed to Baffert after they receive their early lessons at the McKathans' farm in Ocala.

"They told me Bob was not someone you could tell what to do," McIngvale said. "I said, 'I've changed.' "

McIngvale has not changed his approach to marketing his furniture. McIngvale is the star of his commercials, which conclude with him holding a fistful of dollars while yelling, "Gallery Furniture saves you money!" His early commercials found him outfitted in a mattress that had holes for his head and arms. Hence his nickname, "Mattress Mac."

"I'm a shameless promoter," said McIngvale, who said he spends between $8 million and $10 million on advertising every year.

McIngvale is an avid tennis fan. He owns the Westside Tennis Club in Houston, which was the site of the season-ending Masters tournament last year. He named Wimbledon for the site of one of tennis's Grand Slam events.

"Wimbledon is one of my favorite places," he said.

In other Derby developments:

* There are two other important races for 3-year-olds on Saturday. Pollard's Vision, Song of the Sword, and Suave head the expected field for the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course. And at Gulfstream Park, Forest Grove and Sir Oscar are scheduled to run in the $250,000 Aventura Stakes.

* Several crucial races will be run on April 10. The $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland is expected to include Birdstone, Limehouse, and California invaders Action This Day, Lion Heart, and Preachinatthebar. The $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct features Eddington, Master David, Swingforthefences, Tapit, and Value Plus. And the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park will include the unbeaten Smarty Jones, along with Borrego and Purge.

* Jose Santos, who won last year's Derby on Funny Cide, has picked up the mount on Limehouse for the Blue Grass.

* Pomeroy, the runner-up in the Gotham Stakes, worked five furlongs in 1:00.40 on Wednesday morning at Santa Anita for trainer Patrick Biancone in preparation for the April 17 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.