03/06/2008 12:00AM

High hopes for talented trio

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - It has been a while since the El Camino Real Derby was a key prep for the Kentucky Derby, but Saturday's Grade 3, $150,000 race has at least three horses who could possibly end up in Louisville on the first Saturday in May.

Coast Guard, Nikki'sgoldensteed, and Behindatthebar all hope to use the 1 1/16-mile race at Bay Meadows as proof they deserve to continue on the Triple Crown trail.

Coast Guard, never worse than second, won his maiden in his third start on Dec. 29 and then ran second in the Grade 2 Robert Lewis on Feb. 2 on Santa Anita's synthetic track. Coast Guard was scheduled to run in last weekend's Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita but had to pass the race with a minor foot problem that cleared up almost immediately, said his trainer, David Hofmans.

"We had this race as an option, so we scratched him," Hofmans said. "We worked on him, and the problem was resolved over the weekend."

Coast Guard worked six furlongs in 1:13.20 Monday at Santa Anita.

"I think he's a real nice colt," Hofmans said. "He's maturing all the time and is not nearly at his peak. The last race showed he fit in the stakes category. We're trying to get him on the trail for the Derby and, hopefully, this race will show he can go forward."

Nikki'sgoldensteed is the only stakes winner in the 10-horse field. He followed up a Jan. 11 maiden victory at Santa Anita by winning the Feb. 9 Turf Paradise Derby on dirt.

Trainer Bob Hess Jr. said Nikki'sgoldensteed "progressed well" off his maiden victory, and needs to improve again to win the El Camino Real.

"In order to beat some of the big guys, he has to jump forward," Hess said. "I'm confident he'll run well, but I don't know if he can beat Coast Guard and Behindatthebar."

Behindatthebar brings only a seven-furlong maiden victory into the race. After that win, which came on Feb. 2 at Santa Anita, he was privately purchased by the Padua Stables and shifted from Craig Dollase to the barn of Todd Pletcher. In his last work, he went five furlongs in 1:00 at Hollywood Park.

"We're excited about running this horse," said Michael McCarthy, Pletcher's assistant. "We've had him just under a month. He's our type of horse, a big, classic-looking kind of individual. He worked a great five-eighths Sunday in company with Circular Quay."

Two locally based runners have a chance to upset. Bamaha Breeze, claimed for $20,000 from his debut, is 3 for 3, with the last victory coming at seven furlongs in a first-level allowance at Santa Anita on Feb. 21.

"Everything's got to be perfect for him to run," said his trainer, Steve Miyadi, hinting he might seek an easier spot.

Pleasure Grounds is 3 for 5 with a pair of seconds. He ran second in the six-furlong Stinson Beach at Golden Gate Fields on Jan. 5, and won around two turns here in a $32,000 optional claimer at one mile on Feb. 15.

Rounding out the field are the maiden winners General Dan, Autism Awareness, Master Daniel, and Tres Borrachos, and the maiden Dreamed Day.

The last time the El Camino Real produced the Kentucky Derby winner was in 1999 with Charismatic.