Derby fave Eskendereya leads Wood Memorial field
NEW YORK (AP) -- After a two-week delay, Eskendereya gets a chance to show whether he's worthy of the role as Kentucky Derby favorite.
The 3-year-old colt is the 4-5 favorite in a six-horse field for Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack, a final prep before the Derby on May 1.
Eskendereya won the Fountain of Youth Stakes by 8 1/2 lengths on Feb. 20. Owner Ahmed Zayat then decided to skip the Florida Derby and run in the Wood, a decision he hopes will pay off in the Run for the Roses.
Trainer Todd Pletcher says Eskendereya deserves to be ranked among the leading Derby contenders and call the colt's last race the "most impressive performance this year" in a prep.
"He has all the tools that you would like to see," Pletcher said. "The one thing we've been very confident in all along is that he wants to run the distance of the classic races."
Pletcher is 0-for-24 in the Derby, and one reason may be that his 3-year-olds were unable to handle 1 1/4 miles. The Wood is 1 1-8.
Eskendereya would seem to have no trouble with distance. A son of Giant's Causeway, the chestnut colt appeared to have plenty of run left after winning the 1 1-8-mile Fountain of Youth.
"He has tremendous natural stamina," Pletcher said. "He's physically a strong horse, he holds up to his races well, he eats well."
Taking on Eskendereya are Gotham winner Awesome Act, Fountain of Youth runner-up Jackson Bend, Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Schoolyard Dreams, maiden winner Carnivore and front-running Most Happy Fella, a winner in two of his last three starts at the Big A.
Eskendereya arrived at New York's Belmont Park from Florida on Wednesday, and has settled into his new home.
"He's gotten taller, grown from a boy to man, looks fantastic," Pletcher's assistant Jonathan Thomas said Thursday as Eskendereya playfully grabbed at the hay rack next to his stall and posed for photos.
Eskendereya is the Arab translation for the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. The name also is defined as a "flirty Alexandrian dance with a milaya (heavy veil), formerly used as a fashion accessory in the 40s," according to a bellydance glossary of Middle Eastern dance teminologies.
Pletcher is looking for a win Saturday, but knows a strong effort will be enough to send Eskendereya to the Derby. The Derby field is limited to 20 starters based on graded-stakes earnings. The colt ranks 28th on the list with $150,000.
"He hopefully runs well -- he's capable of winning -- and comes out of it well and continues to move forward," Pletcher said.
Pletcher has several other Derby hopefuls, including Discreetly Mine, Mission Impazible, Rule and Super Saver. He would set a record if he saddles more than five horses in the Derby.
"We're just focused on keeping these horses healthy and happy and not too caught up in whether it's one, two, five or whatever the number turns out to be," Pletcher said.
Awesome Act, the 9-2 second choice, is coming off a 1 1/4-length win in the Gotham at the Big A in his first race on dirt. The England-based colt remained in the New York after the win and has been training well for the Wood. He went for a casual breeze Thursday at Belmont, and assistant trainer Wayne Tanner said he's "settled in like he's been here all his life."
Trainer Jeremy Noseda says a strong race is needed "to keep moving forward and to believe that we are realistic about our dream of being in Kentucky."
Jackson Bend could give Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito a second Derby starter to go with his Florida Derby winner Ice Box. Jackson Bend has never finished worse than third in his eight starts, and was a distant second to Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth.
Schoolyard Dreams appeared to have captured the Tampa Bay Derby, but the photo finish gave the win to Odysseus.
"I still can't believe he lost that race," trainer Derek Ryan said. "But he's a horse that is going in the right direction. He's training very well and I'm pleased with where he is."
In Saturday's other major preps, Lookin At Lucky is the 4-5 favorite in the Santa Anita Derby and Backtalk is the 3-1 favorite in the Illinois Derby.