Though slow to develop, Wimbledon justified trainer Bob Baffert's supreme confidence Sunday, winning the $600,000 Louisiana Derby (gr. II) at Fair Grounds with a superb finishing kick.
Ridden by Puerto Rican newcomer Javier Santiago, Wimbledon, a maiden-winning gray son of Wild Rush, overtook Pollard's Vision in deep stretch and pulled away to a 2 1/4-length win in a stakes record-tying time of 1:42 3/5 for the 1 1/16-mile stake. It was three ticks off the Fair Grounds track record.
Another Southern California shipper, Borrego, who got a clear run through the stretch while extremely wide, got up in the final jumps to nip Pollard's Vision for second by a head. Breakaway, part of the favored Neil Howard-trained entry with Risen Star (gr. III) winner Gradepoint, was a troubled fourth, three lengths behind Wimbledon.
Purchased for $425,000 at Fasig-Tipton in February 2003, the Kentucky-bred Wimbledon lost his first four maiden races, finishing second in the last three, before breaking loose with an eight-length blow-out at a mile Feb. 8 at Santa Anita.
Baffert has said that he believes Wimbledon is the best hope his stable has for this year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I), and the colt took a giant step forward Sunday. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby three times in the past seven years.
"This horse has always been leery about taking off, but today it didn't seem like it was a problem," Baffert said. "He has such a big, long stride ... he's such a big horse that he was just getting into gear at the end. I always thought that he was a very good horse. He's been a little disappointing at times. He should have broken his maiden a few races back, but I think his last race proved that he was finally getting it together. This horse looks like he's the real deal as long as we keep him healthy, and we'll have some fun with him."
Wimbledon, Borrego and Breakaway all took back in the early going as Indian War Dance set a fast pace (:22 2/5, :45 1/5 and 1:10 3/5) while under pressure from Fire Slam and Nightlifeatbigblue on his outside. Wimbledon made steady progress into the far turn, split horses while four wide at the top of the stretch and took aim at Pollard's Vision, who had rated off the pacesetters in fourth and took the lead in the stretch. Wimbledon caught Pollard's Vision inside the final furlong and won under steady urging while hand-ridden to the wire.
"At the three-eighths pole, it looked like we were running into a lot of traffic, but (Santiago) said somebody was in front of him and he yelled, and the guy moved out of the way," Baffert said. "He made the move there, and turning for home, he set him down."
Borrego, with Victor Espinoza aboard, circled eight paths wide on the turn to range into contention, and was within a length of the winner as Wimbledon began to assume control, but could not match strides, just getting by Pollard's Vision, who ran a strong race to be third. Breakaway trailed into the final turn for jockey Calvin Borel, moved up on the outside of the field, then was forced to the inside for his stretch run.
After forcing the pace for Shane Sellers, Fire Slam took the lead in the stretch before being collared by Pollard's Vision and falling back in mid-stretch to finish fifth. Stolen Time was sixth, followed by Shadowland, Gradepoint, Shaniko, Indian War Dance and Nightlifeatbigblue.
The victory was worth $360,000 to owner James McIngvale, vaulting Wimbledon's career earnings to $415,980 with a lifetime mark of 2-3-0 in six starts. McIngvale, who named the colt, is a huge tennis fan who owns the Westside Tennis Club in Houston.
Wimbledon's next race could be either the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) on April 3, or the Blue Grass (gr. I) or Wood Memorial (gr. I), both on April 10.
Sabine Stables bred the winner, who is out of the Darn That Alarm mare Strawberry Clover.
The fifth choice among the 10 betting intersts, Wimbledon paid $16.40, $8.40 and $6.60. Borrego returned $6 and $5.40. Pollard's Vision was $7.20 to show. The $2 exacta was worth $110.