Much of the racing world will be focused this extended holiday weekend on trainer Doug O'Neill's juvenile champion Nyquist , making his 3-year-old debut for Reddam Racing in the Feb. 15 San Vicente (gr. II) at Santa Anita Park. But first, Team O'Neill hopes to get another Paul Reddam-owned colt, Frank Conversation, on the Triple Crown trail in the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) Feb. 13 at Golden Gate Fields.
Off an authoritative 2 1/2-length victory over Golden Gate's Tapeta racing surface in the California Derby Jan. 16, Frank Conversation has been installed as the 2-1 favorite in a crowded 14-horse field drawn for Saturday's race. If all go it would be the largest field for the El Camino Real since 2000, the only other time in its 34-year history that many have run in Northern California's most important race.
LAMARRA: Frank Conversation Rallies to Take Cal Derby
Offering 17 points toward a potential start in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), including 10 to the winner, the 1 1/8-mile El Camino Real Derby is one of only two Kentucky Derby preps in the U.S. to be contested over a synthetic racetrack. The other is the April 2 Spiral Stakes (gr. III) at Turfway Park.
Frank Conversation, a son of Quality Road out of the Unusual Heat mare Rushen Heat, is attempting to become the first to complete the California/El Camino Real derby double since Chocolate Candy in 2009. Mario Gutierrez, who teamed with O'Neill and Reddam to capture the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (gr. I) in 2012 with I'll Have Another , has ridden the bay colt in all five of his prior starts including two victories. Frank Conversation was acquired by Reddam for $120,000 last year at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s March sale of 2-year-olds in training.
Lead O'Neill assistant Leandro Mora, in the Bay Area to oversee preparations for Frank Conversation after shipping in from Santa Anita Park, said the colt's earlier success on grass led to the decision to run over the Tapeta. He broke his maiden on the hillside grass course at Santa Anita last fall and followed that with a third-place showing Nov. 29 in the Cecil B. Demille Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Del Mar.
Following a fifth-place run in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) on dirt, a race in which he uncharacteristically dueled on lead before weakening in the stretch Dec. 19, Frank Conversation rebounded convincingly in the California Derby. He raced in third for most of the 1 1/16-mile test before he drove to a sharp score three paths wide.
"Frank Conversation, he's going up the ladder," Mora said Feb. 10. "Hopefully he's not only for synthetics. I still believe he can run on dirt after this.
"But the synthetic track, that's why he's here. He ran a super race on grass (to break his maiden at Santa Anita). Now we'll see if he can win here again."
Mora said Frank Conversation has an invitation to the UAE Derby (UAE-II) in Dubai this spring, and that would be a consideration if he runs well Saturday.
"He's blossomed as a 3-year-old," Mora said. "His sire and dam sire—they're not too friendly, not too kind. Quality Road, he usually has crazy horses. He was scratched from the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), he was so crazy. Unusual Heat mare, they're all crazy. So, we didn't expect anything from this horse, but he turned out to be the opposite. He's no problem at all. He's getting more mature, and he's pretty smart."
The 7-2 second choice on the morning line is Kasseopia, whose lone win was a nine-length maiden score over the all-weather track at Kempton in his native Great Britain. Kasseopia was purchased privately following that race and was sent to North America by his new owners, Team Valor International and Gary Barber. He has made one start North America, a runner-up performance in the Grey Stakes (Can-III) in October over Woodbine's Polytrack.
Kasseopia was transferred to trainer Graham Motion following the Grey and trained at Palm Meadows Training Center before joining Motion's string at Santa Anita to tune up for the El Camino.
"We gave him an easy month after the race in Canada with the idea of taking him to Florida," Motion said. "He's been breezing on the dirt at (Palm Meadows) and he handled it well. Ideally, we'd like to run him in an allowance on the dirt (at Gulfstream Park), but there isn't anything until the end of the month and we want to get him going.
"If I had to choose, I wouldn't have him return at a mile and an eighth, but it's a long way to come and we certainly wouldn't do it if we didn't think he was capable of handling it."
The El Camino will be the Showcasing colt's first start with Lasix. Motion also will be represented by Flaxman Holdings' Tusk, most recently third in an optional claimer on the turf Jan. 24 at Santa Anita.
Jerry Hollendorfer leads all trainers with six El Camino victories, and he will try to add another one on when he sends out Mr. Coker, the 9-2 third choice.
Mr. Coker is the least experienced runner in the field, with only two starts, both at Santa Anita. He finished second in his debut Dec. 26 before graduating by 1 1/2 lengths Jan. 18. The El Camino will be his first start beyond seven furlongs. Danzing Candy, the 3 1/4-length winner of the Dec. 26 maiden event, returned to take an optional claimer Feb. 4 and is on the Kentucky Derby trail for trainer Cliff Sise.
BALAN: Danzing Candy Headed to Derby Trail
Russell Baze, the El Camino's leading jockey with nine wins--including seven in the past 11 years—will ride Diplodocus, who is tabbed at 15-1 on the morning line. Diplodocus enters the El Camino off two turf starts at Santa Anita—a 1 3/4-length maiden win Jan. 2 and a fifth in an optional claimer Jan. 24.
Richard Baltas trains Diplodocus for Bloom Racing Stable and Head of Plains Partners.
Mana Strike won the Gold Rush Stakes Dec. 5, making him the only stakes winner in the field besides Frank Conversation. But he was last in his return in the California Derby.
Two others come out of the California Derby, runner-up Marqula and third-place finisher Algenon. Jeff Bonde, who trained last year's El Camino winner Metaboss , saddles Marqula, a Washington-bred son of Coast Guard who is 8-1 on the morning line. The Len Kasmerski-trained Algenon was also second in the Gold Rush and draws the services of jockey Catalino Martinez, who is winning at a 21% clip at the current meet.
The field also includes Kelly With a Twist, a winner of two straight sprints at Golden Gate; Touched by Autism, who shipped south to break his maiden Jan. 7 at Santa Anita; Oscar Dominguez, acquired privately off a three-length handicap win at Dundalk in Ireland; San Dimas, who was supplemented after breaking his maiden by a half-length Jan. 16 at Golden Gate; Go Long, a winner of $50,000 claiming race Jan. 22 at Santa Anita; and Giopress, most recently ninth in the Eddie Logan on turf Dec. 31 at Santa Anita. Golden Gate Fields, Saturday, February 13, 2016, Race 7
Touched by Autism is owned by Johnny Taboada, who also owned Autism Awareness, who sprang a record 62-1 upset in the 2008 edition of the El Camino.
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Kelly With a Twist (FL) Abel Cedillo 122 Manuel Calvario 30/1 2 2Kasseopia (GB) Drayden Van Dyke 122 H. Graham Motion 7/2 3 3Touched by Autism (CA) Frank T. Alvarado 122 Marcia Stortz 30/1 4 4Mr. Coker (KY) Santiago Gonzalez 122 Jerry Hollendorfer 9/2 5 5Oscar Dominguez (IRE) Julien Couton 122 Patrick Gallagher 15/1 6 6San Dimas (KY) Ricardo Gonzalez 122 Eoin G. Harty 20/1 7 7Marqula (WA) Kyle Frey 122 Jeff Bonde 8/1 8 8Tusk (KY) Juan J. Hernandez 122 H. Graham Motion 15/1 9 9Algenon (KY) Catalino Martinez 122 Len Kasmerski 15/1 10 10Diplodocus (KY) Russell A. Baze 122 Richard Baltas 15/1 11 11Go Long (KY) Kent J. Desormeaux 122 J. Keith Desormeaux 20/1 12 12Frank Conversation (KY) Mario Gutierrez 122 Doug F. O'Neill 2/1 13 13Mana Strike (WA) Leslie Mawing 122 Frank Lucarelli 15/1 14 14Giopress (KY) Alejandro Gomez 122 Reina E. Gonzalez 20/1
Golden Gate Fields, Saturday, February 13, 2016, Race 7