To say that jockey Russell Baze enjoys riding in the El Camino Real Derby may just be an understatement.
Baze, continued an unprecedented run in Northern California's top Kentucky Derby prep race, when he guided odds-on favorite Connemara to a 1 1/4-length win over fast charging long shot Haimish Hy, to claim his fifth win in the last six years of the Grade 3 stakes race.
Connemara covered the One and one-eighth mile race in 1:51.26 and paid $4.60 on the win. Haimish Hy returrned $18.40 to place and Posse Power paid $5.40 to show in the $150,000 race at Golden Gate Fields.
Saturday's race featured the top three finishers of the last months $100,000 California Derby. Winner Ranger Heartley, runner-up Connemara and third-place finisher Thomas Baines all lined up again in the El Camino.
Last time, Baze and Connemara could not catch front runner Ranger Heartley, losing by three-quarters of a length to the wire-to-wire winner. This time there would be no such scenario.
"He was a much better horse today than he was in the last race, " Baze said. "Last time he was a little rank on the backside and today he relaxed a lot better. I'm getting to know him better every time i get on him."
Connemara settled in last place early after Ranger Heartley came out at the start, foricing Baze to take Connemara right to the rear.
With Julio Garcia up, Ranger Heartley set the pace to his liking again, going the first quarter in 24.4 and the half in 49.5. while enjoying a two-length lead. But as Fog Alert and Very Fair applied pressure to the leader heading into the stretch, it was obvious Ranger Heartley was starting to struggle.
Baze was allowed to position his horse on the outside and started to pass horses as the field approached the far turn.
"I just gathered him up and he started running real nice," Baze said. "Once we turned into the stretch i saw the leader didn't have anything left we just kept running."
Connemara hit the front in mid-stretch and then held off a late charge by Haimish Hy and jockey Michael Martinez. Ranger Heartley faded to fifth, being passed by Posse Power and Fog Alert in the final stages.
"He was a little rank today," Garcia said of Ranger. "I may have waited too much on the backside. Maybe i should have just let him go. I think the distance might be too far for him."
Baze finished the day with five winners on the card, but as good as his day was, Connemara's trainer Todd Pletcher, had an even better one.
Pletcher saw two of his other three-year-olds win big races around the country on Saturday. Eskendereya won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and Discreetly Mine won the Risen Star Stakes at the Fairgrounds.
Pletcher's assistant, Mike McCarthy, also liked what he saw of Connemara's performance under Baze.
"Today, it was textbook," McCarthy said of Baze's ride."He (Connemara) has the will it takes to win and it doesn't seem like stamina will be a problem for him. Certainly we will think about keeping Russell on for the Santa Anita Derby. If it aint broke, don't fix it."