Connemara, undefeated in a pair of route tries for trainer Todd Pletcher last fall, takes his first step on the Triple Crown trail when he makes his stakes debut against five rival 3-year-olds in the $100,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields Jan. 16.
Owned by Susan Magnier, Derrick Smith, and Michael Tabor, the Kentucky-bred colt is by Giant's Causeway out of the Mr. Leader mare Satin Sunrise. Connemara has been working at Santa Anita, where he won a first-level allowance race at 1 1/16 miles for the Pletcher team by a half-length Nov. 4, his most recent start.
Connemara began his career beating maidens by five lengths at Turfway Park in a one-mile heat Oct. 4. In both of his races, the chestnut was allowed to settle in the back of the pack and he rolled home impressively each time.
Russell Baze, currently without a Triple Crown hopeful, picks up the mount on Connemara, who breaks from post 2 in the short field. The 1 1/16-mile California Derby is the first derby of the year on the West Coast and serves as the local prep for the $150,000 El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), which will be run at Golden Gate on Feb. 20. Both races are contested on the Tapeta racing surface.
"I thought his first race was pretty impressive," said Pletcher. "He broke very, very poorly that day and he has very little gate speed. It really looked to me like he was in a position early in the race where it was impossible for him to win from, and he actually came on to win very impressively.
"His second start we felt was a workman-like effort, maybe not quite as good as his first start," continued Pletcher. "We've kind of freshened him up a bit since then and we feel like he's doing well and ready to run an improved race."
The distance is the reason Pletcher is running Connemara at Golden Gate Fields rather than Santa Anita, which offers the one-mile San Rafael Stakes (gr. III) on the same afternoon.
"Even though he's training at Santa Anita and we had the option of the San Rafael, we just felt like the little bit of added ground would be in his favor at Golden Gate," said Pletcher. "We're looking to get him some experience and looking to see some improvement from him."
Pletcher has had two horses run second in the Kentucky Derby -- Bluegrass Cat in 2006 and Invisible Ink in 2001 -- but has yet to win the "Run For The Roses." He is hoping Connemara can join his upper tier of prospects for the 2010 Derby.
"We've got some very accomplished colts like Super Saver , who won the Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill (Downs), and we've got Rule, who won the Delta Jackpot (at Delta Downs in Louisiana)," said Pletcher. "We've got Eskendereya, who ran in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (finishing ninth) and then came back and has already won an allowance race this year at Gulfstream Park. We feel like this colt is one that has a chance to fit in that league if he continues to improve."
Among those facing Connemara is Idaho-bred Our Minesweeper, who owns a pair of local stakes victories for owners Art and Betty Sutter and trainer Michael Lenzini. The gray gelding, by Cause Ur Mine, won the six-furlong Cavonnier Juvenile at Santa Rosa Aug. 1 and the one-mile Bart Heller at Golden Gate Fields Sept. 12. In his most recent race Dec. 12, Our Minesweeper finished second in the one-mile Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate.
Cahill Country has two wins and a second in his last three starts, all coming on turf for trainer Jeff Bonde. He had two starts on the Tapeta last year, running third in his maiden debut in May and finishing off the board in the Lost In The Fog Stakes three weeks later. That was the only prior stakes appearance for the California-bred son of Cahill Road.
Southern California trainer John Sadler ships Ranger Heartley north for his stakes debut. The Lost Soldier gelding won three of eight starts as a 2-year-old, including a sharp front-running score in a first-level allowance in his last start Nov. 27. He will likely set the pace here as well.
Thomas Baines, from the Doug O'Neill barn, began his career in Great Britain where he won a race on a synthetic track. He is coming off a third-place finish on the turf at Santa Anita in the Eddie Logan Stakes Dec. 28.
Shudacudawudya, a stakes winner at six furlongs at Golden Gate in November for trainer Lloyd Mason, tries two turns for the first time.
$100,000 California Derby (Race 8, 4:15 p.m.), 3-Year-Olds, 1 1/16 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Our Minesweeper (ID), F T Alvarado, 121, M Lenzini
2. Connemara (KY), R A Baze, 121, T A Pletcher
3. Thomas Baines (KY), M C Baze, 121, D F O'Neill
4. Cahill Country (CA), I Beato, 121, J Bonde
5. Ranger Heartley (KY), J A Garcia, 121, J W Sadler
6. Shudacudawudya (CA), F Duran, 121, L C Mason