TRAINER PLETCHER RULES IN WEEKEND’S KENTUCKY DERBY PREPS – Four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher’s quest for a victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) is well known, but the dominant performance by his sprawling stable in the weekend’s preps for America’s greatest race provided early evidence that 2010 could finally be his year.\
Pletcher won three of the weekend’s biggest races on the road to Churchill Downs as Eskendereya scored a dazzling victory in the Fountain of Youth (GII) at Gulfstream Park, Discreetly Mine invaded to take the Risen Star (GII) at Fair Grounds and Connemara won the El Camino Real Derby (GIII) at Golden Gate Fields. In addition, the Pletcher-trained Aikenite finished third to his impressive stablemate in the race at Gulfstream Park.
Pletcher has yet to win the Kentucky Derby after saddling 24 starters – the largest number of starts without a win in Derby history. Three of those starters finished behind Mine That Bird last year in Derby 135: Join in the Dance (7th), Dunkirk (11th) and Advice (13th). He has saddled a pair of Kentucky Derby runners-up in Invisible Ink (2001) and Bluegrass Cat (’06).
FLORIDA / ESKENDEREYA CRUSHES FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH FOES – The journey from the position of interesting Kentucky Derby contender to a spot on the short list of possible favorites for the “Run for the Roses” took only 1:48.87 for Zayat Stables’ Eskendereya.
That was the winning time over a “fast” dirt surface at Gulfstream Park as the Pletcher-trained son of Giant’s Causeway dispatched nine rivals to win the 1 1/8-mile Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes by 8 1/2 lengths under jockey John Velazquez. Jackson Bend held off the closing Aikenite for second, while Buddy’s Saint – the 9-5 favorite in the field of 10 – struggled home a well-beaten ninth after encountering rough traffic in the first turn.
In winning his third consecutive race, Eskendereya grabbed the lead heading into the far turn, repelled a challenge from Jackson Bend nearing the stretch and easily pulled away down the lane. The performance stamped him as the favorite for the March 20 Florida Derby (GI).
“You’ve got to be excited when they perform like that in these kind of races at this time of year,” Pletcher said. “I was particularly pleased with the way he finished. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to the bottom of him.”
Meanwhile, trainer Bruce Levine said Remsen (GII) winner Buddy’s Saint was well after his troubled trip under jockey Jose Lezcano. He finished 22 ¼ lengths behind Eskendereya.
“We had a really rough trip and had trouble making up ground,” Levine said. “It’s a tough track to make up ground on, so we’ll just throw the race out and start again.”
Earlier, multiple stakes-winning sprinter D’Funnybone held off A Little Warm to win the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes (GII). Trainer Rick Dutrow, who saddled Big Brown to win the 2008 Kentucky Derby, said the win probably earned the colt a start in the Florida Derby.
Sunday’s Gulstream Park card saw the Nick Zito-trained Fly Down rally from last to nip First Dude by a head in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race. Lezcano rode the winner, who notched his first career victory in late November at Churchill Downs.
SOUTH / DISCREETLY MINE GETS FRONT-RUNNING RISEN STAR WIN – It is frequently noted in Thoroughbred racing that there are few things more dangerous than a quality horse on an easy lead, and E. Paul Robsham Stable’s Discreetly Mine validated the adage again on Saturday with a front-running win in the $300,000 Risen Star (GII) at Fair Grounds.
The Pletcher-trained Discreetly Mine led 11 rivals through early fractions of :24.60 for the first quarter and a half-mile in :48.75 under Javier Castellano and was never seriously challenged. He held off Tempted to Tapit, who chased the winner in second from the start, and third-place Northern Giant to complete 1 1/16 miles over a “fast” dirt course in 1:44.88.
“I thought two or more horses would show up,” Castellano said. “They let me gallop along.”
The top three finishes are expected to run back in the $750,000 Louisiana Derby (GII), the New Orleans track’s major Kentucky Derby prep, on March 27.
BAFFERT’S CONVEYANCE ROLLS AT OAKLAWN – Unbeaten Conveyance raced on natural dirt for the first time and the result was no different from three synthetic track races in California: he rolled to a front-running victory in the $250,000 Southwest Stakes (GII) at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.
The Bob Baffert-trained son of Indian Charlie, winner of the San Rafael (GIII) at Santa Anita in his previous start, held off the late charge of Dublin and Cardiff Giant to win Saturday’s one-mile race by three-quarters of a length. The favored Conveyance, owned by Zabeel International, covered the distance in 1:36.94 under jockey Martin Garcia.
Dublin, winner of the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga for four-time Kentucky Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas, rallied strongly in his first race since the colt underwent throat surgery.
WEST / CONNEMARA REBOUNDS IN EL CAMINO REAL DERBY – Favored Connemara rallied from last under Russell Baze to win Saturday’s $150,000 El Camino Real Derby (GIII) at Golden Gate Fields to provide Pletcher with his third victory of the day in a Kentucky Derby prep race. The half-brother to 2004 Kentucky Derby runner-up Lion Heart had finished second as the favorite in his previous start in the California Derby.
At Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Dixie Commander, who is not nominated to the Triple Crown, upset odds-on favorite Indian Firewater in the $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby.
BOREL HONORED WITH GEORGE WOOLF AWARD – Two-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel has been honored by his peers as the winner of the 2010 George Woolf Award. The annual award honors a jockey whose career and personal character reflect well on both himself and all of Thoroughbred racing. Along with his Kentucky Derby win on Mine That Bird, Borel was the regular rider of Horse of the Year and Kentucky Oaks (GI) winner Rachel Alexandra.