02/16/2010 12:00AM

Three-way rematch on tap in El Camino Real

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Saturday's Grade 3, $150,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields has attracted a field of 10, including five local runners for the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Derby prep.

Included in the field are the top three finishers from last month's California Derby: Ranger Heartley, Connemara, and Thomas Barnes, who all shipped in for the race.

Connemara and Ranger Heartley, the lone members of the El Camino Real Derby field nominated to the Triple Crown, are listed as the morning-line favorites, at 2-1 and 5-2, respectively. Connemara ran second as the 7-10 favorite in the California Derby, and Ranger Heartley paid $13.80 to win. Thomas Barnes is listed at 7-2 on the morning line, with the two other shippers, Fog Alert and Jairzihno, at 12-1 and 15-1.

The five locally based runners are all morning-line longshots. Posse Power, who has won two straight, is 12-1. Multiple stakes winner Our Minesweeper, fifth in the California Derby, and Haimish Hy, coming off an allowance win, are 15-1. Bert 'N the Group, coming off a starter allowance victory, and Very Fair are both listed at 20-1.

In its early years, the El Camino Real Derby was a significant Triple Crown prep, producing three straight Preakness winners: Gate Dancer (1984), Tank's Prospect (1985) and Snow Chief (1986). Tabasco Cat won the El Camino Real and the Belmont in 1994, and Charismatic finished second in the El Camino Real before winning the Kentucky Derby in 1999. It also served as a prep for two Northern California-based Kentucky Derby runners-up, Casual Lies (1992) and Cavonnier (1996).

Tough time for purse cut

Excitement for this year's El Camino Real Derby is muted, with a 7.5-percent purse reduction beginning with Thursday's races. Declining handle forced the reduction, which includes the elimination of three stakes races, including the Grade 3 Golden Gate Fields Turf.

"It's always tough to make these decisions," Golden Gate's general manager, Robert Hartman, said of the decision to cut the stakes.

Not that there's ever a good time for purse reductions, but the timing is particularly bad at Golden Gate Fields.

This is the time of year when Washington-based trainers begin to return home for the Emerald Downs meeting. The exodus had already begun, and the purse cut gives them less reason to stay.

Hartman says the track is considering continuing its four-day-a-week schedule even though it is scheduled to expand to five days of racing a week March 17. Adding an extra day would stretch the local horse population thin.

"We're seriously talking about continuing four-day weeks past March 17," Hartman said. "We have horsemen leaving for Washington, we can't use the turf yet, and 2-year-olds aren't ready to run.

"Four-day weeks are becoming more accepted now. I wouldn't be surprised to see Southern California to consider it as well. We have to try to figure out how to get more betting on our product."

The mood among trainers tends more toward disappointed than anything else.

"To put it in perspective, purses are dropping all over," said trainer Billy Morey.

"I think we're already at the bottom end for purses," said trainer Steve Sherman. "I don't think we can afford another cut."

Trainer Valerie Rhoden says even big barns are affected by the reductions.

"It's tough to keep owners happy," Rhoden said. "Other expenses haven't gone down. You wonder if key owners are going to continue to invest."

Trainer Bill Anton, who runs a small barn, looks at the human toll that results from purse cuts. On Monday, he had to let a groom go even though he was a hard worker.

"It breaks my heart," he said, "but you can't give away money you don't have. Now my assistant and I will have to do stalls and everything."

* Fans attending Golden Gate Fields on Saturday will receive a free El Camino Real Derby T-shirt featuring the silks of previous winners.