Updated on 09/17/2011 12:53PM

Wimbledon stirs memory of Ferdinand

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PHOENIX - In this season, in which the 3-year-olds picture is so murky, so confusing, I've begun to search high and low for the one who tugs at me.

None of the division leaders knock my socks off. Lion Heart has been brilliant but brilliance rarely gets the roses. Birdstone looked good last summer, but his Champagne win came over a sprinter (Chapel Royal) who was routing. Eurosilver looked super winning the Breeders' Futurity but then was sidelined. Then there's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Action This Day, who has already had his 2004 debut moved back. Tapit, Capac, Borrego, The Cliff's Edge, Read the Footnotes - there are any number of other candidates but none gets my pulse racing.

A couple weeks ago, however, a big gray trained by Bob Baffert caught my eye at Santa Anita. lost that day, Dec. 29, but what grabbed me was the huge surge he made from midway down the backstretch to open up at the eighth pole in what was his first route. He tired late and finished second, but it was a most promising run.

That race was Wimbledon's third start. He debuted sprinting at Del Mar last August but showed little and finished fifth. He was next seen at Hollywood in November, sprinting again, and this time ran on to be second. His last race capped an improving Beyer Speed Figure pattern (60-79-82).

The way he ran in that route caught my eye and stirred memories back to 1985 of another horse who began his career in similar fashion.

That colt was Ferdinand, whose first two races came in sprints, too. He ran eighth at Del Mar in his debut. In his second race, like Wimbledon, he improved, rallying for third. He ran a mile at Santa Anita in his third start, losing by a nose to a horse named Acks Like a Ruler. But in his fourth start he took a leap. He made a powerful move to the lead and won by more than two lengths. After that, it was a solid third to Snow Chief in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity before eventually winning the Kentucky Derby.

Ferdinand went from a lumbering juvenile to a horse of historical importance.

Wimbledon has yet to win - something Ferdinand did in November of his 2-year-old year - but he has progressed in a manner similar to Ferdinand.

Both were bred to run long. Ferdinand was by the great Nijinsky II out of a Double Jay mare. Wimbledon's sire, Wild Rush, was a Grade 1 winner going short and long, and also a graded stakes winner on turf. His sire, Wild Again, won the inaugural Breeders' Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles. Wimbledon is out of a Darn That Alarm mare, which says "route."

Ferdinand was trained by one of the game's immortals, Charlie Whittingham. Wimbledon's trainer, Baffert, has his critics but he has won the Derby three times. He knows the way to the Churchill Downs winner's circle.

Wimbledon has been working in solid, steady fashion, and he is entered Sunday in a 1 1/16-mile at Santa Anita. With blinkers added to his equipment and Gary Stevens aboard, Wimbledon looks set for a breakout race. It wouldn't stun me in the least if Wimbledon continued to improve and - like Ferdinand - matured into a major 3-year-old.

If you think this is a reach, consider this: How much at this time of the year did we know about such Derby winners as Funny Cide, War Emblem, Monarchos, Fusaichi Pegasus, or Charismatic?