Chitu wins the Sunland Derby.

Chitu wins the Sunland Derby.

Coady Photography

Chitu Cuts Loose for Sunland Derby Triumph

Trainer Bob Baffert sweeps exacta as Midnight Hawk is second March 23 in New Mexico.

Favored Chitu  put away stablemate Midnight Hawk in the drive for the wire as trainer Bob Baffert accounted for the first two finishers in the $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III) (VIDEO) March 23 in New Mexico.

Tanma Corp.'s 3-year-old son of Henny Hughes earned his way into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), earning 50 qualifying points with his 2 1/4-length victory in the 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby. He was timed in a spritely 1:47.88 for the 1 1/8-mile distance on a fast track.

"From day one, everything went well," said Baffert assistant Jim Barnes. "He shipped well. With two sprints and one route under his belt, this was the race he needed. He’s getting fitter and fitter."

Baffert and jockey Martin Garcia won the race for the second year in a row following Govenor Charlie, who set a track record of 1:47.54 in his 2013 victory. Baffert has won three of the 12 runnings of the Sunland Park Derby, also taking the 2006 renewal with Wanna Runner.

Earlier on the card, the Baffert-trained Awesome Baby dominated the Sunland Park Oaks and appears headed for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) on Derby weekend May 2-3 at Churchill Downs.

Chitu was favored off his solid runner-up effort to Candy Boy in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 8 at Santa Anita Park, and he did not disappoint his backers at odds of 9-5.

Breaking from the far outside in the field of nine sophomores, Garcia was able to slide Chitu over into second heading into the first turn, just outside of early leader Garen, with his stablemate Midnight Hawk racing a close third. Garen took the field along at a good clip through the first half mile (:23.25, :46.46) before Midnight Hawk and Chitu went for an early move, with Midnight Hawk gaining a head advantage while completing six furlongs in 1:09.60.

Head-and-head up at the top of the stretch, Midnight Hawk, ridden by Mike Smith, led briefly on the outside but Chitu fought on gamely. He led by half a length at the eighth pole before taking command in the final furlong, winning under some urging from Garcia. It was 4 3/4 lengths back to third, where Commissioner , ridden by John Velazquez, rallied from sixth at the three-eighths pole to secure the show spot.

Bred in Kentucky out of the winning A.P. Indy mare Sea Gift, Chitu was a $300,000 purchase by Tanma Corp.'s Susan Chu out of the Southern Chase Farm consignment at the OBS select 2-year-old in training sale last March. Southern Chase Farm paid $67,000 for the chestnut colt as a yearling at Keeneland in September 2012 from Trackside Farm, agent, for breeders Tom Evans, Macon Wilmil Equines, and Marjac Farms. Chitu is the fourth winner from five starters for her dam, and her first stakes winner.

Chu, who owns Chitu with her husband, Charles, said the colt's name derives from one of the all-time greatest racehorses in China.

Chitu has now captured three of four starts while earning $501,800 with the $400,000 winning prize for the Sunland Derby. The colt began his career winning back-to-back starts going six furlongs last December before commencing his 3-year-old campaign in the Lewis. He led in that race after putting away Midnight Hawk mid-stretch but could not match Candy Boy late when defeated by half a length.

He bounced out of that race quickly and had been training superbly at Santa Anita since, including a handy seven-furlong move in 1:24 4/5 out of the gate March 17.

It was another tough defeat for Midnight Hawk, who has now posted three consecutive placings in graded stakes since winning the Sham Stakes (gr. III) Jan. 11.

Though he displayed no early speed on a track that favors it, WinStar Farm's Commissioner ran an encouraging third for trainer Todd Pletcher after shipping in from Florida following a sixth-place effort in the Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth (gr. II) Feb. 22. The A.P. Indy colt wore blinkers for the first time.

Mine That Bird Derby runner-up Rebranded took fourth for hot local trainer Justin Evans, followed by Oaklawn Park invader Bourbonize, Global Strike, Garen, Tanzanite Cat, and Lawly's Goal.

Chitu paid $5.80, $3.20, and $2.20, teaming with his stablemate for a chalky $16 exacta. Second choice Midnight Hawk returned $3.40 and $2.40, while 7-2 third choice Commissioner paid $3. For Derby leaderboard watchers, Chitu now ranks fourth with 54 points and Midnight Hawk is sixth with 52.