Horse racing: Eskendereya blows away field to win Wood Memorial
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK — And your likely Kentucky Derby favorite is ... Eskendereya, the overpowering winner of the $750,000 Wood Memorial.
Drawing away from a strong field in the stretch, Eskendereya pulled off a second straight blowout in a major Derby prep Saturday to state his case as the horse to beat on the first Saturday in May.
And that would be fine with Todd Pletcher, the trainer who has won just about every race you can think of but is 0 for 24 in the Derby.
"It would be big to win the Derby," Pletcher said. "We'll try to make it happen. We'll do the best we can."
Eskendereya looks like Pletcher's best shot to end his Derby drought, but the trainer could have as many as seven other 3-year-olds by the time an expected full field of 20 horses enter the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Eskendereya, though, is the clear standout. And after fellow Derby top contender Lookin At Lucky finished third in the Santa Anita Derby about 30 minutes later, there's little argument as to who's the No. 1 choice for the Derby.
Pletcher couldn't hide a huge smile as he stood on the track and congratulated his assistant, Jonathan Thomas, before accepting handshakes from a large group in the winner's circle.
"It's amazing," he said. "The further he goes, the stronger he gets. He's a horse that has natural stamina."
Ridden by John Velazquez, 1-2 favorite Eskendereya stormed into the lead and won by 9¾ lengths over Jackson Bend. The margin of victory in the 1 1-8-mile Wood topped Eskendereya's 8½-length win in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 20 in his last start.
The Derby on May 1 is 1¼ miles and appears to be a perfect fit for Eskendereya, a chestnut son of Giant's Causeway.
Owned by Ahmed Zayat, Eskendereya picked up $450,000 and boosted his graded stakes earnings to $600,000, more than enough to qualify for the Derby that has a 20-horse limit.
Zayat, who has filed for bankruptcy after a bank said he defaulted on $34 million in loans, was not at the race.
Jackson Bend, trained by two-time Derby winner Nick Zito, earned $150,000 for second to move to $230,000, likely enough to make the Derby field. That would give Zito two Derby starters — Florida Derby winner Ice Box is the other.
Eskendereya raced comfortably in third behind Most Happy Fella and Jackson Bend. By the time the field hit the final turn, Eskendereya was taking control as Velazquez eased the colt to the outside. From there, he was home free.
"He was just galloping," Velazquez said. "It was a good feeling."
Awesome Act was third, followed by Schoolyard Dreams, Carnivore and Most Happy Fella.
The winning time was 1:49.97. Eskendereya returned $3, $2.30 and $2.10. Jackson Bend returned $3.90 and $2.60, and Awesome Act paid $2.20.
Jackson Bend has finished second three times in a row in Derby preps — the Holy Bull, the Fountain of Youth and now the Wood, with two of the losses coming against Eskendereya.
"These guys have to run against Muhammad Ali," Zito said referring to Eskendereya. "That's Smokin' Joe Frazier (Jackson Bend). He won't give up."
Calvin Borel, who was aboard Zito's colt for the first time, agreed.
"The one thing about this colt is that he's gutsy," Borel said. "He's the kind of horse you want in the Derby."
If Borel remains with Jackson Bend, the jockey would be looking for a second straight Derby win following last year's stunner with 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird.
Awesome Act had a tough trip, stumbling at the start and losing a shoe. But the Gotham Stakes winner based in England finished strong under Julien Leparoux to gain third and earn $75,000 and give him $285,000 in graded stakes earnings.
"It was a great performance by the winner, but for my horse the pace was wrong," Awesome Act's trainer Jeremy Noseda said. "We'll move on to Kentucky and go from there."
Eskendereya was purchased by Zayat Stables for $250,000 at the Keeneland September sale in 2008. The name is the Arab translation for the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. Eskendereya also is defined as a flirty Alexandrian dance with a heavy veil, according to a bellydance glossary of Middle Eastern dance teminologies.
The colt won one of his first two starts before finishing ninth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile over Santa Anita's synthetic surface. Pletcher said Eskendereya had a rough trip and called the race a throw out. Now he's 3-for-3 this year and moving on to the Derby.
"We've never had a horse we knew could handle the mile-and-a-quarter and we've never had one put together a couple of preps like this one," Pletcher said. "We've had some good prep wins, but none as impressive as these two."