Trainer Todd Pletcher completed a 3-year-old graded stakes triple Feb. 20 when favored Connemara, ridden by Russell Baze, captured the $150,000 El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Golden Gate Fields.
Earlier, Pletcher won major 3-year-old stakes in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth (gr. II) with Eskendereya at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star (gr. II) with front-running Discreetly Mine .
Pletcher, who has never won the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) while often loaded with contenders during the past several seasons, appears to have plenty of options for another big try in 2010.
"The pressure was on today," assistant trainer Michael McCarthy told HRTV afterward. "We did good in Florida, Louisiana was not too shabby and we did fine here."
Baze, the all-time leading rider in terms of victories, won his fifth El Camino Real Derby in the past six years and his seventh overall aboard Connemara, a son of Giant's Causeway --Satin Sunrise (by Mr. Leader). Connemara won both of his starts as a 2-year-old last fall and ran a closing second in the California Derby in his 2010 debut Jan. 16 at Golden Gate.
Sent off at odds of 13-10 in the El Camino Real, Connemara rallied from last in the nine-horse field after a half-mile to register his first stakes score by 1 1/4 lengths over Haimish Hy in a time of 1:51.26 in the 1 1/8-mile test.
Connemara broke from post 8 and enjoyed clear sailing from start to finish.
"When I saw the [post position] draw I knew he'd be tough," said Baze. "There was no way he was going to get stuck inside like he was last time. He felt good the whole way. He was on the bit but not charging. He was just waiting for me to ask him."
Ranger Heartley went gate-to-wire to win the 1 1/16-mile Cal Derby and tried to employ the same tactics here, showing the way through quarter-mile fractions of :24.43, :49.56 and 1:13.60. But he was surrounded by rivals approaching mid-stretch this time and could not hold on, fading to fifth.
Connemara launched his bid on the far outside on the final turn and closed ground quickly while four wide when roused in the stretch, drawing even with the leaders at the eighth pole. He pushed clear under good handling by Baze in the final sixteenth to win with something left.
"He finished strong," said Baze. "He's still a little green. He hung a little bit when he got to the leaders but when I hit him left-handed he responded. He's progressing mentally. His mind was much better today than last time. He's improving with every race and extra distance won't hurt this colt at all."
Haimish Hy also charged from the rear at odds of 25-1 for Michael Martinez to gain the place spot by one length over Posse Power and Leslie Mawing. Fog Alert, Ranger Heartley, Thomas Baines, Very Fair, Bert' N the Group and Our Minesweeper followed.
Owned by Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith, the lightly-raced Connemara, now with three victories in four starts, figures to be headed for a more difficult test on the Triple Crown trail. He grabbed $90,000 in graded stakes earnings with the win, boosting his overall total to $147,800.
McCarthy mentioned the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) as a probable destination for Connemara. The $750,000 event at 1 1/8 miles is the West Coast's final Kentucky Derby prep. It will be run April 3.
Commonwealth bred the winning chestnut in Kentucky.
Connemara paid $4.60, $3.20 and $2.80. The lightly regarded Haimish Hy, fourth in the one-mie Gold Rush at Golden Gate Dec. 12 for trainer Steve Sherman, returned $18.40 and $9.20 and completed an $89 exacta. Posse Power, making his stakes debut following back-to-back wins locally for Frank Lucarelli, was $5.40 to show.