The field for the Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate on Saturday will include the third Grade 1 winner in the race's history: Comma to the Top, the likely favorite, won the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity in December at Hollywood Park.
The other Grade 1 winners to have run in the race were Snow Chief, the 1986 El Camino winner, and Cara Rafaela, the first filly to run in the El Camino when she was fourth as the beaten favorite in 1996.
Peter Miller, trainer of Comma to the Top, wouldn't mind emulating Mel Stute and Snow Chief. Both won Hollywood Park's year-ending futurity, and if Comma to the Top could win the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness, as Snow Chief did, he would earn the $5.5 million Preakness bonus offered by track owner MI Developments for the sweep.
Saturday's 1 1/8-mile El Camino Real will give most trainers with a horse in the race a clear focus on where their 3-year-olds could be headed. But for Miller and Comma to the Top, it's a different story, because Comma to the Top already has enough graded stakes earnings to assure him of a berth in the Kentucky Derby. Comma to the Top has won five straight races, including three stakes.
"We don't have any pressure," said Miller. "We could run once [before the Kentucky Derby] or not run at all."
Races Miller is looking at after the El Camino Real include the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 12 and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 9.
"We're going to try not to get overly excited, but we'll try to enjoy the ride," he said.
Miller purchased Comma to the Top for $22,000 at last April's Ocala sale for Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, and Kevin Tsujihara. Although several advisers were not keen on the Bwana Charlie gelding, Miller said, "I took an immediate liking" to him.
With a bankroll of $551,600, including $444,000 in graded earnings, Comma to the Top certainly rates as one of the bargain buys of 2010.
"He was a gelding with no real pedigree," said Miller, explaining the low sales price. "But he had a terrific video and a beautiful way of moving. I just really liked him."
Comma to the Top probably should have won his debut , which came for a $40,000 claiming tag. He had a ton of trouble and fell a head short. He also lost a straight maiden race and graduated in start No. 3 at Del Mar for a $50,000 tag.
After a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Best Pal and running sixth in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, Comma to the Top traveled to Golden Gate Fields, where he got confidence-building victories in a six-furlong starter allowance and a six-furlong first-level allowance race. Then came wins in the Real Quiet at Hollywood, the Grade 3 Generous on the turf there, and the CashCall.
Miller also is entering Comma to the Top in the Grade 2, $250,000 Robert Lewis at Santa Anita on Saturday, but he intends to run the gelding over the Tapeta surface in the El Camino.
"I know he likes the racetrack," he said. "He's 2 for 2 over it. It's probably a little easier competition than down here, and I kind of feel like he's a Northern California horse, too, and would like to share him with the people of the Bay Area."
Positive Response, winner of the Gold Rush and California Derby, could be Comma to the Top's primary rival in the El Camino Real. Also expected to run are Silver Medallion, who is coming off a victory in the Eddie Logan at Santa Anita; Jetsam and Bluegrass Reward, second and third here in the California Derby; and recent maiden winner Formula Gold.
While Miller has an idea of where he's going, trainer Lloyd Mason hopes to learn a lot more about Formula Gold, a Formal Gold homebred owned by the trainer's son Brett.
"He can tell us where he'll go from here, but he'll get good experience out of the race, and it looks like it will be a short field," said Mason.
Early in the week, trainer Duane Offield was still considering entering California Oaks winner Lilacs and Lace in the El Camino Real. If he enters her, she would be the third filly to compete in the race. In addition to Cara Rafaela, Wildwood Flower ran in the race and was fifth in 2004.