03/08/2004 1:00AM

Wimbledon puts Baffert back in hunt

Alexander Barkoff
Wimbledon, trained by Bob Baffert, wins the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds by 2 1/4 lengths. Odds On and Preachinatthe-bar, two more 3-year-olds trained by Baffert, will start in the San Felipe next Sunday.

NEW ORLEANS - Bob Baffert for months had watched his Kentucky Derby crop of 2004 disappoint. Several well-regarded 2-year-olds from last year never developed. Many more, some with expensive price tags, were complete busts. Baffert became so desperate that he bought a couple of runners privately, perhaps hoping to emulate the success he had two years ago with War Emblem. But those horses did not amount to much, either.

It turns out Baffert's best prospect was the one he believed in all along, dating back to last August. It just took Wimbledon a lot longer than expected to come to the fore. But his victory in Sunday's Louisiana Derby put a smile on Baffert's face, a skip in his step, and some strength in his voice. With the Derby now less than eight weeks away, the three-time Derby-winning trainer is again in a familiar position, one he hopes to enhance in coming weeks.

Next on the horizon is Sunday's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, in which his pair of Odds On and Preachinathebar will take on the likes of Action This Day and St Averil. Following that race, Baffert will have a better idea of where Wimbledon will run next. He said the big gray colt's final Derby prep will be in either the Santa Anita Derby on April 3 or the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 10.

"We finally took the training wheels off," Baffert said Monday morning from Santa Anita, where he returned to put Odds On through a six-furlong drill in 1:13.60. "When a hole opened, [Wimbledon] popped right through. I love his style. And he's just learning how to run. That maiden win woke him up. And I love that he doesn't get hot or stupid. He was great in the paddock."

Wimbledon earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 101 in the Louisiana Derby, which was his first start since defeating maidens at Santa Anita. He could have a rematch in the Santa Anita Derby with Borrego, who finished second in the Louisiana Derby. Borrego's trainer, Beau Greely, said the Santa Anita Derby is next. Both colts were scheduled to be flown back to California on Tuesday.

The Santa Anita Derby will also include Imperialism and Lion Heart, the one-two finishers in Saturday's San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita. Imperialism, who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 104, has now won two stakes since being acquired in Florida by trainer Kristin Mulhall on behalf of owner Steve Taub.

"We weren't buying him for this," Mulhall said Monday. "We didn't think this might happen. We just thought we were buying a solid horse."

Imperialism races with a full cup blinker on his right eye.

"His right eye is sunken," said Mulhall, 21, who doubles as Imperialism's exercise rider. "He looks like the devil on that side. The other side is gorgeous, but the right side is spooky as heck. He trains in those blinkers every single day."

Lion Heart, who won all three of his starts at age 2, was making his 2004 debut in the San Rafael. His trainer, Patrick Biancone, thought Lion Heart ran a remarkable race, considering the hot pace and wide trip.

"I don't think too many horses could go 45 for the first half-mile and keep going out to the winning post," Biancone said. "He was fresh. He had not run in a long time. I like very much the fight of my horse."

Last weekend's races marked the first round of major March preps. Next up are important races this weekend that coincide with Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which closes Sunday.

On Saturday, Read the Footnotes, the Fountain of Youth Stakes winner, is scheduled to take on the comebacking Tapit in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Tapit worked five furlongs in 1:07 at Tapeta Farm in Maryland on Monday. He was scheduled to fly to Florida on Tuesday. He will be ridden by Edgar Prado, who became available when Master David took ill and was removed from consideration for the Florida Derby.

Also Saturday at Gulfstream, Breeders' Futurity winner Eurosilver heads the field in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes.

Halfbridled, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2003, makes her first start of the year in Saturday's Santa Anita Oaks. She is nominated to the Triple Crown, but trainer Richard Mandella says it is doubtful she will be pointed to the Derby.

"At this point, no, but I'm not going to pass it if I think she's the best 3-year-old out there," said Mandella, who also trains the colts Action This Day and Minister Eric. "Let's see what happens."

Sunday's action includes the San Felipe, with Action This Day, and the Tampa Bay Derby, in which Limehouse and Swingforthefences are the top contenders.

In other Derby developments:

* Neil Howard, the trainer of Gradepoint, said the Risen Star Stakes winner might move to turf for his next start, in Keeneland's Forerunner Stakes on April 15. Howard said the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Wood Memorial are also under consideration for Gradepoint, who finished eighth in the Louisiana Derby.

* Howard said Breakaway, fourth in the Louisiana Derby, is under consideration for the Wood, Blue Grass, and Oaklawn's Arkansas Derby, all of which are on April 10. "We were pleased enough with Breakaway," Howard said. "The other didn't run well, but we're not ready to jump off the top of the barn yet."

* Fire Slam, who finished fifth in the Louisiana Derby after being part of a wickedly fast pace, "pulled up fine, but extremely tired," said his trainer, David Carroll, who was upset with the ride of jockey Shane Sellers. "I thought Shane used very poor judgment," Carroll said. "He never got a breather. A race like that takes the starch out of a horse." Carroll said the April 3 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne or the April 17 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, are likely targets for Fire Slam.

- additional reporting by David Grening