Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Only three prep races remain to determine the 20-horse field for the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby. This Saturday's showcase events are the Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass, with the Lexington Stakes to be run seven days later. But based on the results of all previous three-year-old graded stakes races, one horse truly stands above the rest.
Eskendereya provided racing fans with another outstanding performance obliterating a solid field of six in the Wood Memorial, winning by an ever- increasing 9 3/4 lengths. That dominating victory came fresh off the heels of an 8 1/2 length win in the Fountain of Youth Stakes back in mid-February.
Jockey John Velazquez hand rode the son of Giant's Causeway the entire race, never once asking the colt for anything extra. Eskendereya's effortless burst of speed through the stretch distanced himself not only from the rest of the Wood Memorial field, but also, quite possibly, the other 19 starters in the upcoming Kentucky Derby.
Some might look at the final time, a slow 1:49 4/5, and say he's not as fast as some of the other colts, especially since this was the third slowest running of the Wood since 1990. However, the track wasn't playing very fast for two-turn races last Saturday as older stakes horses needed 1:51 2/5 to complete the Grade 3 Excelsior Stakes one race earlier. In addition, Eskendereya could have run at least a full second faster if forced to, but there was no reason for Velazquez to push him just four weeks prior to the first Saturday in May.
Still, viable questions do remain since the Todd Pletcher-trained star has yet to face any adversity this year, racing outside of horses, free and clear of any possible trouble. What happens if Eskendereya draws an inside post position at Louisville and gets boxed in behind a wall of horses?
Furthermore, the expected 2010 Derby favorite has been able to stalk the early leaders through moderately slow fractions in his prior two victories. Will he be able to rev up the engines if he finds himself five to seven lengths off the lead after the first four furlongs?
Those two key questions are what gamblers will have to think about before placing their bets on a colt that should be the 9-5 favorite.
One potential danger area that Eskendereya will not have to worry about is the ability to handle 10 furlongs. The $250,000 yearling purchase is bred to run all day as his sire, Giant's Causeway, finished second in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic, and his damsire is the 1977 Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew.
In addition, Eskendereya's granddam, Altair, is a daughter of Alydar, who ran second to Affirmed in all three 1978 Triple Crown races. Altair's dam, Stellar Odyssey, is a half-sister to the 1974 Kentucky Derby winner Cannonade, as well as Kennelot, who produced Stephen's Odyssey, the runner-up in the 1985 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
Furthermore, Stellar Odyssey's dam, Queen Sucree, is a half-sister to Halo, the sire of two Kentucky Derby winners - Sunday Silence and Sunny's Halo, and Queen Sucree's mom Cosmah is a half to Natalma, who produced the 1964 Derby winner Northern Dancer.
If Eskendereya proves victorious in the Kentucky Derby, he'll be well on his way to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed.
A SWEET SANTA ANITA DERBY
Sidney's Candy and jockey Joe Talamo got away with highway robbery for the second straight time en route to a 4 1/2 length victory in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby.
After loping along unchallenged through slow early fractions in the San Felipe Stakes three weeks ago, the pair lulled the field to sleep again with 24 and 48 2/5 splits. After the three-quarter time was posted in 1:12 1/5, Sidney's Candy picked up the pace running his final three furlongs in 35 4/5 while stretching the lead from one length to 4 1/2.
The 7-2 second choice benefited from not only another pedestrian pace but also with the unfortunate trip that beset Lookin At Lucky. The 4-5 favorite was moving up on the rail around the far turn when jockey Garrett Gomez had to steady and pull back on the reins forcing the two-year-old champ to drop from fourth-place to eighth in a matter of seconds. It was a remarkable feat that the horse was able to regain composure and re-rally to finish third, beaten six lengths.
Those folks planning to wager on Lookin At Lucky in the Kentucky Derby got exactly what they wanted. The Bob Baffert-trained colt could very well be closer to 6-1 on the first Saturday in May instead of the expected 3-1 if he had won the Santa Anita Derby.
However, don't run to the windows just yet. This is a horse that has had just one trouble-free race since last October and in a race loaded with 19 other horses, his chances for another bad trip are extremely high.
Lookin At Lucky wasn't the only horse in the race that ran into problems. The winner, Sidney's Candy, stumbled out of the gate but still won handily. It was the second straight year that Joe Talamo faced adversity in his final Kentucky Derby prep as he directed I Want Revenge to a miraculous victory in last year's Wood Memorial after a treacherous beginning.
Sidney's Candy might now be the second choice in the betting behind Eskendereya. Still, 7-2 or 4-1 might be tough to take since he won't be able to enjoy his usual easy lead in the Kentucky Derby with the likes of Homeboykris, Conveyance, Rule, American Lion, and quite possibly Super Saver and Discreetly Mine on or near the lead.
THE LION ROARS INTO ILLINOIS
In another example of how easily California horses have adapted to conventional dirt, American Lion went gate to wire prevailing over Yawanna Twist by 2 3/4 lengths in the 53rd running of the Illinois Derby.
The son of Tiznow came into the race off a fourth-place finish to Sidney's Candy in the San Felipe but there was no one to challenge him on the lead in this one.
Despite the victory, he still ran his final five furlongs in 1:02 seconds flat needing 1:51 1/5 to complete the 1 1/8-mile race. When War Emblem parlayed his Illinois Derby win with the Kentucky Derby, he ran this event in 1:49 2/5, and Musket Man finished in 1:49 4/5 last year before picking up a third-place check at Louisville. In fact, the 1:51 1/5 is the same time that Cowtown Cat ran in 2007 and that horse wound up last in the Kentucky Derby.
THE NEW JEFF FRANK TOP 12
1) Eskendereya; 2) Lookin At Lucky; 3) Sidney's Candy; 4) Noble's Promise; 5) Endorsement; 6) Dublin; 7) Super Saver; 8) Interactif; 9) Make Music for Me; 10) Ice Box; 11) Odysseus; 12-T) Pleasant Prince and Awesome Act
HORSES TO WATCH
Race seven on last Saturday's Keeneland card was an entry-level allowance race for three-year-old fillies at about seven furlongs.
Much Rejoicing remained undefeated in two starts on Polytrack with an emphatic 3 1/2 length score over Buckleupbuttercup.
The James Toner-trained filly has an outstanding pedigree for both dirt and turf and should be a future stakes winner on any surface she chooses.
Bred in Kentucky, the daughter of Distorted Humor is out of Soaring Softly, who won the first Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare turf race in 1999. Soaring Softly's granddam, Wings of Grace, is a half-sister to Sunyata, who is the second dam of one of this year's top three-year-old colts, Noble's Promise.
In an interesting twist, the other horse to watch comes out of the very same race.
Bringingdown Babel finished sixth at 43-1 but did not disgrace herself moving up from a maiden special weight victory at Turfway Park on March 13. She won by 2 1/2 lengths that day finishing her 5 1/2-furlongs in 1:06 1/5.
The chestnut filly broke slow last Saturday, trailing the field at the start. She then rushed up to sixth, going four-wide into a 23-second first quarter. The longshot then moved into contention on even terms with Much Rejoicing approaching the top of the stretch.
Unfortunately, she faltered through the stretch winding up in the sixth spot, beaten 11 1/4 lengths. However, it's not often a 43-1 can challenge for the lead near the top of the lane after breaking slow from the gate. Sure she failed inside the final furlong but the filly still ran her first three- quarters of a mile in 1:11 flat against quality competition.
If her connections find a six-furlong allowance race for her next start, she's definitely one to watch!