With synthetic tracks going out of fashion in the United States over the last few years, options for amassing Kentucky Derby points over anything but dirt have become few and far between. One of those rare remaining opportunities comes this Saturday over the Tapeta at Golden Gate Fields, in the El Camino Real Derby.
In addition the features several three-year-old preps on dirt, and Picks and Ponderings will be there: we also preview the Risen Star Stakes (G2) and Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds on Saturday, as well as Monday's Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn Park.
The El Camino Real Derby, named after the so-called "Royal Road" that connects the Spanish missions from the San Francisco Bay south to San Diego, began its life in 1982. It was run at the late Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo from 1982 through 2000, and again from 2005-2008. Golden Gate Fields hosted the race from 2001-2004, and again from 2009 through the present day. The race was run at 1 1/16 miles for most of its history, but stretched out to its current 1 1/8 mile distance in 2009. The race gained a Grade 3 designation in 1986, but was downgraded to listed status this year. Its purse was also cut in half, $100,000 this year versus $200,000 last year. Even so, it still offers its customary 10-4-2-1 Kentucky Derby points to its top four finishers.
The El Camino Real Derby has not yet produced a Kentucky Derby winner, but three of its victors have gone on to take the Preakness: Tank's Prospect (1985), Snow Chief (1986), and Tabasco Cat (1994). On a more local bent, Cause to Believe (2006) shipped to Hawthorne later in the spring to finish a distant third behind Sweetnorthernsaint in the Illinois Derby. Ten Most Wanted, third behind Ocean Terrace in the 2003 El Camino Real Derby, had a better time in his visits to Hawthorne. He won the Illinois Derby in his next start, and would also win the 2004 National Jockey Club Handicap (G3) at 35th and Cicero in his final career start.
Watch the El Camino Real Derby, and every race at Golden Gate Fields, on the racetrack website.
Morning lines were not available at original publish time. Edited Friday, January 16 to add morning lines.
Saturday, February 17: Golden Gate Fields
Race 7: El Camino Real Derby, three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the Tapeta, post time 3:45pm PST
Since the El Camino Real Derby moved back to Golden Gate Fields from Bay Meadows in 2009, four of its winners have raced at Golden Gate before the El Camino Real. That includes the last two, Zakaroff and Frank Conversation. Yet, turf horses have also seen success in the El Camino Real, which makes sense because turf form tends to translate more truly to Tapeta than it does to other synthetics (like the Arlington polytrack).
This space, all things considered, will give the razor-thin edge to the top contender among those with proven Tapeta form: California Derby winner CHOO CHOO. Though his best race to date was that Golden Gate effort, the Jerry Hollendorfer charge should have the class to compete against the shippers. He held his own on the grass downstate: he broke his maiden at third asking going a mile at Del Mar, finished a troubled second behind budding turf star Analyze It in the Cecil B. DeMille (G3), then finished third in the Eddie Logan. That third in the Eddie Logan came after getting wound up in a protracted speed duel -- but CHOO CHOO's other races have had him rating more kindly. That ability will matter here, as the race has quite a bit of front-end gas for a race this long: CALEXMAN, EPICAL, and MUGARITZ have all needed the front end to be their best. The stretch out to nine furlongs should not faze CHOO CHOO at all, either: the son of English Channel is a full brother to the long-winded Blueskiesnrainbows, who hit the board in both the fourteen-furlong Breeders' Cup Marathon (G2) and the twelve-furlong Cougar II Handicap (G3). As long as CHOO CHOO can sit off the speed -- something he managed to do the only other time rider Juan Hernandez had the call -- he looks to get first run on the speed.
BLENDED CITIZEN has not tried the Tapeta before, but has some upside based on his turf form. He improved last year moving from turf to dirt, finally breaking his maiden fifth time out in a turf mile at Del Mar. He then finished fourth in the Eddie Logan, but has gotten a little break since that December 29 race. Assuming trainer Doug O'Neill has him ready to fire, BLENDED CITIZEN should take well to the pace scenario here; he has done his best work with a fast pace in front of him, something he stands to get here. On pedigree, BLENDED CITIZEN has upside on the stretch out: he is a Proud Citizen half to Lookin at Lee, in the money in three races at a mile and an eighth or beyond last year, including the Kentucky Derby (G1). He also has a full sibling who is G1-placed routing over a synthetic surface; Battlefield Angel finished third in the Alcibiades at Keeneland at age two.
Finally, we get to PAVED, the buzz horse here. PAVED took three starts to break her maiden, but graduated impressively on January 6 at Santa Anita. The distance of the El Camino Real should be no question for PAVED: she is the only one in this field to have tried a mile and an eighth so far, and that attempt came in her romping maiden win. She also rallied into a sharp pace in front of her that day; PAVED stands to get that here. The question here is mainly about price: can you take a short price on her if she hasn't tried Tapeta, hasn't tried winners, and hasn't tried males yet? It's hard. But, if PAVED replicates her last out in the El Camino Real, it would be no surprise to see her beat the boys.
#4 CHOO CHOO (9/5)
#2 BLENDED CITIZEN (4/1)
#1 PAVED (2/1)
Longshot: #5 CITY PLAN (15/1) returns to Golden Gate after an unsuccessful tilt at the Sham Stakes last out. Two starts back, in his only start over the Tapeta, he sprung a 24/1 upset of the one-mile Gold Rush Stakes. that day, he rallied from near the back of the pack early and proved most game in the lane. Though CITY PLAN's maiden win came on a contested front end at Los Alamitos, he has come from off the pace in both his starts with jockey Tyler Conner riding, and Conner rides again today. The Eoin Harty trainee will have to move forward to win this, as the foes CITY PLAN faces here are tougher than the ones he defeated two back in the Gold Rush. But, with the right setup, it would not be a surprise to see CITY PLAN at least get the Godolphin Blue into the exotics at a good price.
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