Odds-on choice Wanna Runner left the pacesetting Blaze It behind on the far turn on his way to demolishing an overmatched field by 4 3/4 lengths in the $600,000 WinStar Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico Saturday.
Victor Espinoza joined his main trainer Bob Baffert at Sunland to register an easy win aboard the Canadian-bred son of El Corredor
, owned by Mike Pegram. Wanna Runner notched his first stakes victory, but the win does nothing to get the colt to the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) next month. In spite of a $300,000 winner's share, the purse doesn't count toward Derby eligibility because the WinStar is an non-graded race.
"He looked pretty awesome today," said Baffert, who said Wanna Runner remains under consideration for the Derby. "He sat off that pace, and I really liked how he was extending. Victor tells me this horse is better than we thought.
"You can't say never," Baffert said. "You have to wait until you see all the (Kentucky Derby) preps. Brother Derek is exceptional but right now it's not out of the question. We've got to look at the whole picture. A whole lot happens between now and then."
Espinoza won all three of his rides at Sunland Saturday, including the $250,000 WinStar Oaks aboard Sweet Fourty for trainer Jeff Mullins in the race preceding Wanna Runner's victory.
The winning time was 1:48 4/5 on a fast track, breaking the stakes record set last year by Thor's Echo. The time was three ticks off the track mark. Wanna Runner, who wore blinkers again after Baffert took them off for his last start, paid $3.80, $3 and $2.20 as the 9-10 choice in the nine-horse field. The all-Baffert exacta with Sky Diving was worth $21.20.
Wanna Runner showed good early speed, breaking well and settling in behind Blaze It and stablemate Sky Diving as they went an opening quarter mile in :22 3/5 and the half in :45 3/5. Wanna Runner swept past Sky Diving on the backstretch and was soon threatening Blaze It as they completed six furlongs in 1:10 3/5. He shook loose at the top of the lane and widened his advantage in the final furlong as Sky Diving ($5.20, $3.80) advanced to a non-threatening second under Julio Garcia by 5 3/4 lengths. Belligerence ($2.80) came on late for third by 7 3/4 lengths over entrymate Wait in Line in a straggling finish.
The winner gained his third victory in seven starts which pushed his bankroll to $381,950. Wanna Runner won for the first time in three starts as a 3-year-old. He ran fifth in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) in his last start Jan. 29 at Bay Meadows when Baffert removed blinkers. Two weeks prior to that, he finished third behind Brother Derek in the San Rafael (gr. II) at Santa Anita.
"On this track you need speed," said Baffert, who trained Quarter Horses in New Mexico before launching his wildly successful career with Thoroughbreds. "This place was huge for me. I'm glad for Mike (Pegram). At least I can say I won a derby this year.
"I've come here since I was 14 years old," Baffert said. "My dad and I used to drive here from Nogales (Ariz.), watch the races, and buy feed. It always brings back a lot of good memories. Even when I've come here and gotten beat, I still enjoy it."
Pegram said Wanna Runner would likely be pointed to the Canadian Queen's Plate for 3-year-olds – "unless that man over there says otherwise," he added, nodding toward Baffert.
"I don't know, I'm getting that temperature," Baffert laughed. "Derby fever. I feel pretty good."
Keagan, Might Be Hooked, Blaze It, Doctor Decherd, and Welfare Cadillac, who was fractious in the gate, trailed.