02/10/2009 12:00AM

Cal Derby trio target El Camino


ALBANY, Calif. - Saturday is the most anticipated day of the long Golden Gate Fields meeting, when the Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby is run.

In its 27 previous runnings, the El Camino has been one of the premier Triple Crown steppingstones, producing one Kentucky Derby winner, five Preakness winners, and a Belmont winner as well as two Kentucky Derby runners-up and a Belmont runner-up.

It has produced Triple Crown entrants the past three years, with Cause to Believe (13th in the 2006 Derby), Bwana Bull (15th in the 2007 Derby), and Tres Borrachos (ninth in the 2008 Preakness).

"I think with the horses we have this year, this will end up being an important Triple Crown prep and not a glorified stakes race," Golden Gate general manager Robert Hartman said.

Early confirmed starters were California Derby winner Chocolate Candy, as well as that race's second- and third-place finishers, Axel Foley and Merus Miami.

Rendezvous, a winner of three straight, including both starts here, and Massone, coming off a second in a Santa Anita allowance race in his first start against winners, also are scheduled to run.

Earnings in the El Camino are important, since money earned in graded stakes is used in determining Kentucky Derby eligibility, but the race itself can point trainers to the right path for their colts to follow.

Merus Miami's trainer, O.J. Jauregui, said things are "definitely exciting" at this point.

Merus Miami won his first two starts, including the Gold Rush Stakes, before running third in the California Derby.

"Last time, he had to run hard," Jauregui said. "He put out and got a little tired, but that was good for him. He's training well and has been working pretty steady."

Jauregui considers Merus Miami a Kentucky Derby candidate, but he knows the Friends Lake colt is still a long way from Kentucky.

What impresses Jauregui is the colt's steady improvement.

"Every time I've called on him to do something, he does it," Jauregui said. "I think he'll run a better race this time."

Jauregui is like a football coach in that he is watching other 3-year-old prep races to scout the competition.

"I watch all the 3-year-old races to see who is progressing," he said. "It can help you decide what to do if you are going to run in another race. It helps you to figure out if you really belong or maybe just run in another race for big money."

McCann's Mojave tops undercard

One of Golden Gate Fields's two new $50,000 overnight stakes will head the El Camino Real Derby undercard.

The McCann's Mojave, a 1 1/16-mile race for older horses, will feature Autism Awareness, last year's El Camino upsetter, and El Gato Malo, who won the Gold Rush in his lone start here.

"At a time when others are cutting back, we are pleased to be able to add a pair of stakes," Hartman said.

The King Glorious, a six-furlong stakes for 3-year-olds, is scheduled for Feb. 28.

"We looked at our [horse] inventory in making our determination," Hartman said. "It gives us a chance to offer more opportunities to our better horses and a chance for them to get some black type."

Hartman said that allowance purses will be raised for Saturday's card as well as the upcoming San Francisco Mile Day card on April 25.

Lucarelli gets milestone victory

Trainer Frank Lucarelli got win No. 1,000 on Sunday, when Premier Diablo rallied from last to win the first race.

"About three months ago, my son asked me how many wins I had, and I told him I didn't know," Lucarelli said. "About two months ago, the people at Golden Gate said I needed only eight or nine more for 1,000, and I think I went about three weeks without getting a win."

Lucarelli said he was pleased with the milestone, but he'll be just as excited about win No. 1,001.

He said he'll simply continue to do the same things he has always done, making sure his horses are well cared for and spotted well.

"I don't ever see myself retiring," said Lucarelli, 51. "I may back off a little at some time, but I don't see myself not getting up and going to the track."

Lucarelli said his Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner, Gallant Son, would run in the Grade 3, $150,000 San Vicente at seven furlongs on Monday at Santa Anita rather than the El Camino Real Derby.

The colt got very tired in the California Derby, although he bounced back well. Lucarelli, who sent the colt south Monday, said he thought the San Vicente could work well as a preliminary for other upcoming Kentucky Derby preps.

Lucarelli pitched a perfect game for Western Washington University against Eastern Washington in 1977. He was drafted by Pittsburgh and pitched for two years, winding up his career with Bakersfield of the Class A California League.

While he enjoyed playing baseball and still looks back fondly on his brief career despite the long bus rides, the Washington-based Lucarelli, the second winningest trainer in Emerald Downs history, said he always knew his future was with horses.

* Golden Gate Fields starts off derby week with a $15,851.50 pick-six carryover.

* T-shirts will be given away on Saturday's El Camino Real Derby Day.