Ranger Heartley ($13.80) has discovered a winning formula and used it to perfection in holding off rivals down the stretch to win the $100,000 California Derby by three-quarters of a length over odds-on favorite Connemara at Golden Gate Fields on Saturday.
"I talked to [trainer] John Sadler, and he said, 'I don't care, just get him to the front'" said winning jockey Julio Garcia, who did just that as Ranger Heartley scored his second straight wire-to-wire victory and third in his last four starts.
Despite going rather slow 24.20, 49.90 fractions for the opening half, Ranger Heartley had an open lead and was running relaxed. The fact he was unchallenged early helped late when Connemara moved up outside him and Thomas Baines made a belated bid along the rail.
Ranger Heartley found himself leading Shudacudawudya by only a head at the eighth pole. But the sprint stakes-winning Shudacudawudya, who was content to sit back early, faded in his first try around two turns.
Then Connemara picked up the challenge from Ranger Heartley's outside, while Thomas Baines, who broke slowly and trailed to the stretch, began a bid along the rail.
"When they came up to him at the eighth pole, he dug in and surprised me," Garcia said of Ranger Heartley, who maintained his advantage over the favorite while winning in 1:45.40. Thomas Baines was also unable to get any closer, finishing third another neck back.
Connemara's jockey Russell Baze was impressed by his colt but was disappointed in the finish, saying the colt galloped out strong after getting no early pace help.
"We needed a little help with the pace, and, obviously, we didn't get any," said Baze. "He has to see daylight in front of him or he'll only give you 80 percent, and 80 percent wasn't good enough today. I got him outside the leader, but I guess he didn't see the daylight in front of him."
Owned by musician Herb Albert and his brother David, Ranger Heartley earned $60,000 while recording his initial stakes victory and more than doubling his career earnings to $119,440. The gelded son of Los Soldier has won four of nine starts.
Trainer John Sadler wasn't in attendance, leaving open to speculation whether Ranger Heartley would return for the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 20.