02/18/2010 12:00AM

Hard to look past Ranger Heartley, Connemara

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Will Saturday's Grade 3, $150,000 El Camino Real Derby turn into a two-horse race or could a late-developing runner thrust himself into the Northern California 3-year-old picture?

Ranger Heartley and Connemara, who ran one-two in the Jan. 16 California Derby, both return for the 1 1/8-mile El Camino Real, which is Northern California's main stepping-stone to the Kentucky Derby.

Thomas Baines, third in the California Derby, and seven other 3-year-olds are also entered. Only Ranger Heartley and Connemara were early Triple Crown nominees.

Ranger Heartley, claimed early in his career by trainer John Sadler for David and Herb Alpert, upset 3-5 Connemara in the California Derby, taking the lead out of the gate and withstanding a stretch challenge before edging away for a three-quarter-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile race. A Lost Soldier gelding, Ranger Heartley has won 3 of 4 starts since stretching out from sprints.

"When we stretched him out, that's when he started getting really good," Sadler said.

Before the California Derby, Sadler told jockey Julio Garcia: "Just get him to the front."

Garcia will receive similar instructions Saturday.

"It it's not broke, don't fix it," Sadler said.

"I think he can run from off the pace, but he's got such stamina and can run at a high rate. We're happy with the way he's trained up to the race."

Connemara, trained by Todd Pletcher, loomed into contention in the stretch of the California Derby, which was his first start in nine weeks. Connemara disappointed jockey Russell Baze, who said the Giant's Causeway colt gave only 80 percent in the California Derby, but he showed Baze some positives, too.

"When we were galloping out he grabbed the bit and took off with me, which was kind of frustrating," said Baze. "He's extremely talented."

Baze who will be back aboard Connemara on Saturday.

While the breeding suggests Connemara could improve with the added sixteenth of a mile, the way Ranger Heartley dug in suggests it could be tough to get by him.

"When they came up to him at the eighth pole, he dug in and surprised me," Garcia said after the California Derby.

Thomas Baines turned in a good effort when third in the California Derby, and he will be joined by locally based runner Our Minesweeper, a multiple stakes winner who ran fifth in the California Derby, and new faces such as Haimish Hy, Bert' N the Group, and Posse Power, each of whom comes into the race off a victory. Posse Power comes in with two straight victories, in a maiden race and a first-level allowance.

Taking a shot with an improving horse seems a logical step according to Bert' N the Group's trainer, Valerie Rhoden.

"I think he's going to like the distance," she said of Bert' N the Group, a son of Bertrando.