Will Colonel Samsen Upset the El Camino Real Derby?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

With some of this week's best races scheduled to be run on Presidents' Day, the racing action on Saturday will be a little quieter than usual. However, handicappers with an eye on the Kentucky Derby will still get to enjoy an intriguing renewal of the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) at Golden Gate Fields, a nine-furlong race that has drawn a small but competitive field. Let's start handicapping!

El Camino Real Derby (gr. III)

As one of only two Kentucky Derby prep races still held over a synthetic track, the El Camino Real Derby tends to draw a different group of horses than most Derby preps. While there are usually a couple of proven dirt runners prepping for a potential run on the first Saturday in May, local runners with proven affinity for the Tapeta track are common, as are turf runners shipping in from the high-quality meets at Santa Anita and Del Mar.

With that in mind, it's worth noting that success on turf has been almost a prerequisite for winning the El Camino Real Derby; five of the last six winners had distinguished themselves against good company on turf, and the only winner without turf experience (Tamarando) was already a Grade 1 winner on synthetic.

As a result, it could pay to play against the chances of the two favorites Sheer Flattery and Ann Arbor Eddie, for while they are certainly the most accomplished runners in the race, they have been running exclusively on dirt and have no experience on turf or synthetic. Of the pair, Ann Arbor Eddie has the slightly better record-three wins from four starts, including two stakes races for California-breds-but Sheer Flattery has arguably kept better company, most recently finishing third in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) on February 4th. In addition, Sheer Flattery is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, who has won the El Camino Real Derby on six occasions.

But keeping historical trends in mind, I believe the horse to beat might be Colonel Samsen, who is one of the longest shots in the field at 10-1 on the morning line. Trained by Eoin Harty, Colonel Samsen has been racing steadily since his debut last August and has already gotten eight races under his belt, including a runner-up effort behind future stakes winner Kitten's Cat in a one-mile maiden special weight on the turf at Kentucky Downs.

However, Colonel Samsen has shown significant improvement in his last four races, beginning with an impressive maiden win on November 13th at Del Mar, in which he unleashed a tremendous surge to close 9 ¾ lengths in the final five-sixteenths of a mile and win by a neck. That running style is perfect for the El Camino Real Derby, which has been absolutely dominated by closers since being moved to Golden Gate Fields in 2009.

Equally important, Colonel Samsen has already proven himself at Golden Gate Fields, where he won the one-mile Gold Rush Stakes on December 3rd with an off-the-pace rally. A subsequent attempt on dirt resulted in a sixth-place finish over a sloppy track in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, but Colonel Samsen rebounded to run third in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields on January 21st, beaten just two lengths despite racing closer to the pace than usual and making an early bid for the lead.

In the El Camino Real Derby, Colonel Samsen will be facing a field with a reasonable amount of early speed, which will hopefully allow him to settle near the back of the pack and make one run. Time will tell if he's good enough to defeat the two favorites, but the prospect of getting 10-1 on a horse that fits the profile of previous winners is very appealing. I think he'll give a very good account of himself.

I also wouldn't underestimate the chances of Kona Dreams, a promising colt despite the fact that he's still a maiden after four starts. He's kept some good company so far, losing his debut by a nose and running third by 1 ½ lengths to Colonel Samsen in the latter's maiden win at Del Mar. Kona Dreams has been favored in two of his four races and has enjoyed the services of top jockeys Rafael Bejarano, Gary Stevens, and Mike Smith, so there's evidence that this is a well-regarded runner, and while his front-running/pace-pressing style might not be perfect for Golden Gate Fields, Kona Dreams has flashed enough talent in two-turn turf races to suggest that he could be a factor in the El Camino Real Derby.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the El Camino Real Derby?


Two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito has been on a roll during the winter meet at Gulfstream Park, going 9-for-46 so far to compile an impressive 20% win rate. One of his wins came on February 5th with the three-year-old gelding Lenstar, who broke through with an impressive maiden win after finishing behind horses like Malagacy, Petrov, Warrior's Club, and Fact Finding in his previous starts.

Sent off as the narrow second choice in a six-furlong maiden special weight, Lenstar showed speed from the start and carved out fractions of :22.32 and :45.35, at which point he held a 3 1/2-length lead. He maintained that advantage early in the homestretch and extended it through the final furlong, pulling away to win by 6 1/4 lengths in the final time of 1:10.71 seconds.

For his effort, the Virginia-bred son of Shackleford earned a respectable Beyer speed figure of 85. With six starts under his belt dating back to last August, he has more foundation than most maiden winners, and while he's not currently nominated to the Triple Crown, I wouldn't be surprised if we see him turn up in a future Kentucky Derby prep race.


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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