Before you fall in love with Eskendereya’s 9 3/4-length romp in Saturday’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and think he’s the odds-on choice to win the Kentucky Derby, remember this — Bellamy Road won the 2005 Wood by 17 lengths, went postward as the 5-2 Derby favorite and finished seventh, beaten about seven lengths by 50-1 long-shot winner Giacomo.
Don’t get me wrong, I was very impressed the way the Todd Pletcher-trained son of Giant’s Causeway drew off and beat his five rivals with complete ease without jockey John Velazquez even using the stick once. It was by far the most impressive Derby prep victory, following his 8 1/2-length score in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 20.
But remember this — there were only five other horses in the race, and how good was the competition? Jeremy Noseda, the trainer for Awesome Act who was the 5-2 second choice in the race and had won the Gotham Stakes on March 6 in a career-best performance, even admitted four days before the face that he was fearful his colt could bounce off the effort. He lost a shoe at the start of the Wood, so he might have had an excuse.
When Eskendereya loads into the starting gate for what is expected to be another full Derby field, he’ll have much more to beat, including Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney’s Candy, 2009 2-year-old male champion Lookin At Lucky, other talented Pletcher runners and whoever emerges from this weekend’s Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes in top form. He’s not likely to get the dream journeys he’s gotten in his past two starts, either.
Still, can Eskendereya, who’s won those two races by a combined 18 1/4 lengths, be beaten in the Derby?
“Yes, they can beat him,” said Scotty McClellan, agent for jockey Joe Talamo, who rode Sidney’s Candy to a 4 1/2-length victory in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. “I mean, he was running against a group that I don’t think was the strongest group in the world. It was a six-horse field, the second choice (Awesome Act) was tremendously rank like American Lion was the previous time when he ran (at Santa Anita).
“(Awesome Act) was rank in the backside the whole way. He ran third and almost was second. Eskendereya had a perfect trip, but he is a very good horse. I’m not doubting his ability, but I’m doubting the ones behind him that he ran against. I don’t think it was that strong a field. But he also was very impressive. He comes into the race excellent, he can run over the dirt (four for four) and he’s got tactical speed.”
As it stands now, Pletcher, who’s started 24 horses in nine Derbies without winning, has eight possible starters for the May 1 race — Eskendereya, Rule, Mission Impazible, Discreetly Mine, Aikenite, Interactif, Super Saver and the filly Devil May Care. Aikenite, Interactif and Super Saver are all scheduled to go in Derby preps this weekend.
Trainer Nick Zito’s Jackson Bend, who finished second behind Eskendereya on Saturday and also was runner-up in the Fountain of Youth, earned $150,000 in the Wood and has enough graded-stakes earnings to start in the Derby if his connections want to go. Zito told the Daily Racing Form on Sunday that the colt will be shipped to Louisville and a decision on his status will be made closer to the race.
Meanwhile, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said Sunday he’d like to send Santa Anita Derby runner-up Setsuko to Louisville but isn’t sure if he’ll have enough earnings if the race oversubscribes.
Caracortado, who finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby after steadying in the incident with Lookin At Lucky and Who’s Up and has now lost his past two races after winning the first five starts of his career, also could be shut out of the Kentucky Derby because of a lack of earnings.
Jockey Paul Atkinson, who rode Caracortado, thought the incident between Lookin At Lucky and Who’s Up was going to turn out worse than it did.
“It looked so bad in front of me, I said to myself, ‘He’s (Gomez) going down, we’re both going down,’ because there was nowhere I could go,” Atkinson said. “Thank God we didn’t fall. Then I just tried to scramble and he did make his run and he came flying.
“I’m sorry this probably puts us out of the Kentucky Derby because of not having enough graded earnings unless someone comes out. I still think he deserves a shot.”
“We have no plans right now,” Caracortado’s trainer, Mike Machowsky, said. “We’ll see how it plays out. I wouldn’t rule out the Derby, but he’d have to be kicking the barn down and all that. I don’t think anybody was going to beat Sidney’s Candy. He looked very, very strong. Too bad there was all that rough riding.”