With just four favorites having won the Kentucky Derby since 1979, there's reason to be skeptical about the prospects of any 3-year-old who goes into Louisville as the horse to beat. But after Eskendereya's romp in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct last Saturday, it's going to be very hard to resist the hype that is sure to follow the colt to Louisville. The big chestnut, who completed one of the more dominating Derby prep campaigns in recent memory, hit the wire nine widening lengths in front of his nearest rival. The performance, achieved without even the slightest urging from jockey John Velazquez, came six weeks after another nine-furlong race, the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in Florida, which the horse won by eight lengths. Given that he will have an extra 220 yards to run at Churchill Downs on May 1, Eskendereya (pronounced es-ken-DRAY-ah) could win the Run for the Roses by an even bigger margin.
Think that's getting carried away? Perhaps, but it's hard not to dream big when you listen to Todd Pletcher, Eskendereya's trainer and one of the more imperturbable characters in the sport of kings. "It's amazing—the farther he goes, the better he gets," says Pletcher, who is 0 for 24 with his horses at the Derby but could saddle a record eight starters this year. (The current best is five.) "[I've] had some good prep wins, but none as impressive as these two." Trainer Nick Zito, whose colt Jackson Bend came home second to Eskendereya in both the Wood and the Fountain of Youth, went Pletcher one better. "A monster," said Zito of Eskendereya after the race last Saturday. "In a class by himself. I didn't think he'd run as good as he did [in Florida]. But he ran better."
Bolstering the colt's credentials as the Derby favorite was the inconclusive running of the Santa Anita Derby, a messy affair that saw 2-year-old champion Lookin At Lucky endure a troubled trip to finish a game third, six lengths behind pacesetting winner Sidney's Candy. Lucky's jockey, Garrett Gomez, was criticized by trainer Bob Baffert for racing the colt into traffic along the rail on the turn for home, only to be forced to hit the brakes a few strides later. Baffert called the ride "horrendous" but refused to say whether he planned to replace Gomez, who later punched the jockey, Victor Espinoza, whom he believed caused the incident. (Gomez was fined $750 for the punch.)
The trip was a far cry from the squeaky-clean ride given to Eskendereya by Velazquez. He kept Esky off the rail and out of trouble down the backstretch, then gave the colt his head at the quarter pole. Velazquez kept looking back under his left arm for rivals all the way to the wire, but nobody threatened. "It was a good feeling," said Velazquez afterward. "He was just galloping."
All the way to Kentucky.
Now on SI.com
For full Derby coverage in the weeks leading up to Louisville, go to SI.com/more
After Eskendereya, here are five top Derby contenders to keep an eye on until May 1.
1. Lookin At Lucky
Don't put much stock in the Santa Anita Derby disaster. Baffert was only looking to tighten him up before heading to Churchill.
2. Noble's Promise
He's been runner-up to Lookin At Lucky in his last two starts.
3. Sidney's Candy
(below) His triumph on Saturday was no fluke, as he recovered from a stumble out of the gate.
This gritty colt seems to be the most talented Pletcher runner after Eskendereya.
5. Awesome Act
Despite a horrible trip and a soft pace in the Wood, this English invader still rallied to miss second by a head.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (ESKENDEREYA AND PLETCHER)
DERBY DREAMS Eskendereya could be one of eight entries for Pletcher (below), who is trying to win his first Derby.