The previously muddled 3-year-old class finally has a most spectacular leader.
After three months of seeing this year's Kentucky Derby hopefuls beat up on each other without anyone grabbing the division by the throat, we had arguably the most telling day of prep races yet on Saturday.
As impressive as Eskendereya looked in winning the Fountain of Youth by 81/2 lengths back in February, there were questions not only about the quality of horses he faced but whether he could continue improving off such a big effort.
Following his 93/4-length victory in the Grade I Wood Memorial on Saturday, the main question surrounding the son of Giant's Causeway is how short his final odds will be come May 1.
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Much has been made of trainer Todd Pletcher's 0-for-24 record in the Kentucky Derby but, by his own admission, the four-time Eclipse Award winner has never come into the race with a horse that has as much classic ability as Eskendereya.
Pletcher made a huge splash by starting four horses in his first Derby attempt in 2000. Though Impeachment and More Than Ready ran third and fourth, respectively, the two had combined for a grand total of one win in their 3-year-old campaigns leading up to Derby.
Pletcher has had two Derby runners-up in Invisible Ink (2001) and Bluegrass Cat (2006), but the former was a 55-1 long shot in the race and — while he would go on to become a Grade I winner — Bluegrass Cat's only stakes win as a 3-year-old prior to the Derby came in the ungraded Sam F. Davis Stakes.
On paper, the only previous Pletcher trainee that has rivaled Eskendereya to this point was Scat Daddy. The son of Johannesburg took the 2007 Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, but his pedigree didn't have near the stamina that Eskendereya's does — a fact that showed when Scat Daddy finished 18th in the Kentucky Derby.
"I don't think we should look at any trainer and judge him by what's happened in the Kentucky Derby," said Jeremy Noseda, trainer of Wood Memorial third-place finisher Awesome Act. "I remember I was lucky enough to meet (Hall of Famer) Charlie Whittingham and ... it took him long enough to win it, didn't it?
"You know, you need the element of luck."
One also needs the right horse, and Pletcher just might have finally found it.
1. Eskendereya: His Wood Memorial clinic showed he has all the tools it takes to get to the Kentucky Derby winner's circle. His ability to rate and his seemingly effortless turn of foot is downright scary. "There was more there than what we saw, even as impressive as it was," trainer Todd Pletcher said. Eskendereya was slated to return to Florida on Sunday and will likely ship to Churchill Downs 10 days before the Derby.
2. Lookin At Lucky: Can't hold anything that transpired in the Santa Anita Derby against him. He still ran on to get third after having to take up sharply during the race and trainer Bob Baffert said the son of Smart Strike came out of the scuffle "fantastic." Although Baffert blasted jockey Garrett Gomez for his ride after the race, the Hall of Famer said Sunday that Gomez would not lose the mount for the Derby. "Garrett came by the barn this morning and we talked things over," Baffert said. "(Lookin At Lucky) leaves on the 12th (for Churchill Downs) and, yeah, Gomez will ride him back."
3. Noble's Promise: While most of the top contenders were slugging it out Saturday, the son of Cuvee continued to prep for his expected start in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 10, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.80 at Oaklawn.
4. Sidney's Candy: There was a lot to be impressed by in his 41/2-length Santa Anita Derby win. He stumbled at the start and still relaxed on the front end as if he were out for a morning jaunt. He is a runner, no doubt, but he hasn't been tested on dirt and will likely have company on the front end come Derby Day. "I don't think he's going to have a problem," trainer John Sadler said of running on dirt.
5. Ice Box: Breezed 4 furlongs in :49 flat Saturday morning at Palm Meadows in his first workout since his upset victory in the Grade I Florida Derby on March 20.
6. Endorsement: The son of Distorted Humor arrived at Keeneland last Tuesday and is scheduled to have his first work since his victory in the Sunland Derby either Tuesday or Wednesday. "He will stay here for a while and he might go to Churchill Downs for his last work," trainer Shannon Ritter said.
7. Odysseus: Worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.40 at Palm Meadows on Wednesday. The Tampa Bay Derby winner was scheduled to arrive at Keeneland on Sunday in advance of his expected start in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes on April 10.
8. Rule: The Son of Roman Ruler continues his Derby preparations in Florida, breezing 4 furlongs in :52.40 at Palm Meadows on Sunday. "We are evaluating all of them," Bill Casner, co-owner of WinStar, said about the farm's Derby hopefuls.
9. Jackson Bend: He may not want the Kentucky Derby's 11/4-mile distance but, at this rate, you'd be a fool to leave the Wood Memorial runner-up out of your trifecta. The gritty little horse is always right there. "A lot of horses ran second in the Wood and ran good in the Derby — Go for Gin, Funny Cide — so you never know," trainer Nick Zito said.
10. Super Saver: Worked 4 furlongs in :50.90 at Palm Meadows on Sunday as he readies for the Arkansas Derby.
11. Awesome Act: Didn't have an ideal trip in the Wood Memorial as he stumbled at the start and lost a shoe, not that any of that was going to make a difference against the winner. Still, he was only beaten a head for second and he will likely have much better fractions to make a run at on Derby Day. "We'll train here until about five days before the Derby, then ship down to Kentucky," said Wayne Tanner, assistant to Noseda.
12. American Lion: WinStar Farm is on track again with graded stakes wins on back-to-back weekends. The son of Tiznow responded gamely when Yawanna Twist challenged him in the stretch.
The next dozen: Mission Impazible, Pleasant Prince, Schoolyard Dreams, Setsuko, Interactif, Discreetly Mine, Conveyance, Caracortado, Dublin, Drosselmeyer, Dean's Kitten, Aikenite