The history of the El Camino Real Derby can be divided into two distinct periods. The first era—the glory days—saw the race take place over 1 1⁄16 miles on dirt at Bay Meadows, which closed its doors in 2008. The second era began in 2009, when the El Camino Real Derby transitioned to the synthetic Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields and lengthened in distance to 1 1⁄8 miles.
The first running of the El Camino Real Derby took place in 1982, and the race began on a bright note when victorious Cassaleria went on to compete in the Kentucky Derby. The race achieved Grade 3 status in 1985, and with a purse as high as $300,000, it produced a steady string of nationally prominent runners. El Camino Real Derby winners Tank’s Prospect (1985) and Snow Chief (1986) nabbed victories in the Preakness (G1), while Casual Lies (1992) and Cavonnier (1996) went on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby.
Even beaten runners from the El Camino Real Derby made headlines on national stages. First and foremost was 1999 runner-up Charismatic, whose subsequent victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness secured Horse of the Year honors.
But the momentum of the El Camino Real Derby slowed sharply when the race transitioned to Golden Gate Fields. One of few Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races held over a synthetic track, the race offers Derby qualification points on a 10-4-2-1 basis to the top four finishers, but produced just four Derby starters between 2009 and 2019. None of them hit the board at Churchill Downs, which may have contributed to the race losing its graded status in 2018.
Consider the El Camino Real Derby to be a slumbering giant. With its rich history, you never know when this once-prominent prep might toss up another serious Derby contender.
By J. Keeler Johnson