01/13/2009 12:00AM

Cal Derby draws quality crowd

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ALBANY, Calif. - Saturday's $100,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields figures to be a legitimate test for 3-year-olds with Kentucky Derby dreams.

As the field began to take shape early in the week, three stakes winners and a pair of stakes-placed runners appeared set for the 1 1/16-mile event that serves as a prep for the Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 14.

The caliber of competition will give trainers an indication of whether they should make the next step on the arduous trip to Louisville for the first Saturday in May.

Emerald Downs's top 2-year-old last year, Gallant Son, makes his first start since finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Oct. 25. He won three stakes, including the Gottstein Futurity at Emerald, last summer.

Chocolate Candy, third in the Grade 1, $750,000 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 20 after winning the $100,000 Real Quiet, and undefeated Merus Miami, who won the Dec. 20 Gold Rush, are also confirmed starters.

Adriatic Moon, second to Merus Miami last time out, is set to start, and Frumious, third in his debut in the Solano County Juvenile and the pacesetter before fading late in the CashCall Futurity, both have the talent to make an impact.

Axel Foley, a winner in England, will be looking for his first stakes win and first victory in the United States.

O.J. Jauregui is entering unchartered waters with Merus Miami, who could be the best 3-year-old he has ever trained.

"To run in more important races, he'll have to improve more," Jauregui said. "But, deep down, I know he's really nice. I worked with a lot of really good horses in Southern California that went on to the [Kentucky] Derby, and he's as good as they were at this time."

Merus Miami, a Friends Lake colt owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, has Jauregui excited, although he said, "I try not to get too excited. I'm glad Chocolate Candy is in the race, because this will tell me more about my colt."

Jauregui said West Point owner Terry Finley and West Coast operations manager Jeff Bloom have not put pressure on him.

"They let me do what I think is right," he said. "There's been no pressure. They've let me do what's best for the horse. I've let him develop on his own.

"I knew he had a little chance to be a good horse. He has breeding, looks, everything. One thing I like is he's calm, very relaxed."

Jauregui has seen horses with similar credentials fail to live up to their potential, but he has a good feeling about Merus Miami, especially the way he rallied from last at the quarter pole to win the one-mile Gold Rush pulling clear late.

"Just the way he did it excited me," Jauregui said. "When he came back, he didn't miss a meal. He's done everything so well and so easily. It's like he's saying, 'That's all you want me to do?' "

Jauregui has only a dozen horses in his barn. While he's enjoying watching Merus Miami develop, he also knows the colt's improvement and ultimate destination can be important to him.

"I have to do a really good job," he said. "I won't get a lot of opportunities like this."

Tune-up gets Tapeta back to normal

Trainers were concerned last week that Golden Gate's Tapeta surface was too loose and tiring after the main track was shut down for two days as wax and fibers were added in an effort to rejuvenate the surface. Fibers were added Monday and wax on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The process was called "routine scheduled maintenance" by Tapeta creator Michael Dickinson, who supervised the process.

By the weekend, the track was playing in a manner similar to when the Tapeta was first installed and won virtually unanimous reviews for safety.

"It has a good cushion," leading rider Russell Baze said. "Horses are getting hold of it."

"It has a good bounce," said Roberto Gonzalez. "It's improving day by day."

Both riders said they thought the track was back to the quality it showed last spring.

Kyle Kaenel said the track was headed back in the right direction.

"It has good consistency morning and afternoon," he said. "The track has a natural feel to it."

* Figures released for the 67-day fall meeting at Golden Gate Fields showed a 5 percent rise in attendance compared with the 2007 total. Boosted by its $1 Day Sundays, Golden Gate averaged 2,204 for the 2008 fall meeting after averaging 2,099 in 2007's 32-day meeting.

* Fans attending Saturday's California Derby will receive a free Golden Gate Fields fleece pullover.