Unless something truly unexpected happens in this weekend's Toyota Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby, Eskendereya will go to Churchill Downs as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
Eskendereya's smashing, 9 3/4-lengths victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, coupled with the controversial upset of Lookin at Lucky in the Santa Anita Derby, pretty much locked up the favorite's role for Eskendereya. Even American Lion's gritty victory in the Illinois Derby couldn't detract from the impact of the Wood Memorial outcome.
Even trainer Nick Zito, whose Jackson Bend was a distant second to Eskendereya in the Wood, saw the light. "He ran really great," Zito said of Jackson Bend. "The other horse is just in another league right now. It's sad, because that was a really thrilling race – for second."
Trainer Todd Pletcher said Eskendereya will return to Florida and train there until about 10 days before the Derby. "We'll just try to keep him happy," Pletcher said. "We'll keep doing what we have been doing. We're not going to try and get creative."
Pletcher has saddled 24 Kentucky Derby starters without smelling the roses. Eskendereya, a son of Giant's Causeway out of the Seattle Slew mare Aldebaran Light, may headline as many as six horses he and his help will lead over to the Churchill Downs paddock on May 1.
Both Jackson Bend and the third-place finisher in the Wood, Awesome Act, also are ticketed for Louisville.
Across the country, the only other 3-year-old who might have contended for favorite's status, Lookin at Lucky, had an eventful trip in the Santa Anita Derby, finishing third behind Sidney's Candy and the relatively unheralded Setsuko.
Sidney's Candy led all the way and won by 4 1/2 lengths, reprising his victories in the earlier San Vicente and San Felipe. Setsuko came from last to finish a clear second. But Lookin at Lucky, taken back early by jockey Garrett Gomez, was forced down into the fence on the stretch turn, steadied sharply and lost a lot of his momentum.
The incident first touched off trainer Bob Baffert, who blasted Gomez's positioning of Lookin at Lucky, then Gomez, who exchanged blows with Victor Espinoza, the other jockey involved in the traffic jam.
"I was just disappointed the way he rode the horse," Baffert said later. "He never gave him a chance, he never put him in a spot to win. Garrett is a smart rider. I don't know why he takes that horse back. He wants to race."
The California Horse Racing Board of Stewards Sunday handed Espinoza a three-day suspension and fined Gomez $750 for his actions after the race, according to steward Tom Ward.
But Baffert said Sunday he and Gomez had resolved their differences, that Gomez will ride Lookin at Lucky in the Kentucky Derby and that the rough race might actually benefit their colt.
"This is the best the horse has ever come out of a race," Baffert said. "We learned a lot about the horse and that will really help his chances in the Derby. We got beat by a very nice horse and you can't make mistakes against a horse like that. We're not the favorite anymore. We've dropped down a few notches. But what the hell."
Trainer John Sadler said Sunday Sidney's Candy "came back good" and is headed for the Kentucky Derby. Sadler noted the Run for the Roses will be his horse's first try on real dirt but added, "I don't think he's going to have a problem. He's a good horse." Richard Mandella, who trains Setsuko, said of the Derby, "If we can go, I want to go." With Saturday's $150,000 place money, Setsuko has $180,000 in graded stakes earnings, which could put him on the bubble for getting into the Churchill Downs starting gate.
In the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, American Lion went to the lead around the first turn and set a measured pace, faced a challenge from favorite Yawanna Twist in the stretch and turned back that challenge to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Yawanna Twist held second with Backtalk third.
American Lion won the Hollywood Prevue last fall. This year he has finished third in the Robert B. Lewis and fourth in the San Felipe – both over Santa Anita's all-weather surface.
Trainer Eoin Harty said he was glad he brought American Lion to Illinois from California for his first trip over real dirt before heading to Churchill Downs. And he was pleased with the colt's response.
"When the other horse ran up next to him in the lane, I wasn't sure how he was going to respond," Harty said. "But he did everything right and had something left. I have had three Kentucky Derby horses, all Tiznow runners, and this is another one that looks to be headed in the right direction."
Next up on the Road to the Roses are Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
Dublin, Noble's Promise and Super Saver are expected to headline at Hot Springs and Aikenite and Odysseus are the likely stars at Lexington.
Aikenite, a son of Yes It's True, finished second to Noble's Promise in the Dixiana Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last October and enters the Toyota Blue Grass after a third-place finish to stablemate Eskendereya in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream.
Pointing Aikenite to the Blue Grass "made sense from the very beginning," said Cot Campbell, head of the owners, Dogwood Stable. "The distance was right. He'd been on this racetrack and run well on it, so there was no doubt about what we were going to do. So here we are."
Odysseus ran second in his first start in October at Aqueduct and then broke his maiden Jan. 14 at Gulfstream. He burst in the Derby picture with a 15-lengths victory against allowance company at Tampa Bay Downs a month later in his first start around two turns and followed with a narrow win in the March 13Tampa Bay Derby.
Dublin captured the Hopeful at Saratoga last fall for trainer D. Wayne Lukas but since then has been more hope than promise. After finishing fifth in the Champagne at Belmont and seventh in the Iroquois at Churchill Downs, Lukas put the Afleet Alex colt away for a rest. He returned to run second and third in the Southwest and the Rebel on the local prep trail to the Arkansas Derby.
Noble's Promise, a close third in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finished a close second to Lookin at Lucky in both the Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood and in the Rebel. Trainer Kenny McPeek hopes to have the Cuvee colt peaking at just the right time – especially with Lookin at Lucky back in California.
Super Saver, another Win Star Farm colorbearer and Pletcher trainee, is among the more lightly raced Kentucky Derby contenders. After winning the Kentucky Jockey Club in stunning fashion last fall, Pletcher backed off the Maria's Mon colt and has raced him only once previously this spring – a third-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby. In that race, Super Saver went to the lead, then lost a three-way battle to the wire by only 1/2 length.
After this weekend's action, only the Coolmore Lexington at Keeneland on April 17 offers any realistic hope of propelling a horse into the Kentucky Derby field. And, while the two-week time span between the Lexington and the Derby is an uncomfortable one for today's training patterns, Drosselmeyer, another Win Star runner, could try to get enough earnings there to crack the Run for the Roses field.