ESKENDEREYA (Giant's Causeway), generally considered among the top two candidates for the May 1 Kentucky Derby (G1), will have his final prep for the big dance in Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial S. (G1) on a stakes-laden card at Aqueduct. The leading prospect for trainer Todd Pletcher, who could conceivably have as many as seven or eight entrants in the Run for the Roses, will again be piloted be piloted by John Velazquez over one lap of the Big A's 1 1/8-mile main oval.
Considered by most to have had the most impressive prep win of the season so far, an 8 1/2-length demolition of his foes in the Fountain of Youth S. (G2) on February 20, Eskendereya was kept out of the March 20 Florida Derby (G1) over the same course and distance due to owner Ahmed Zayat's preference for a final prep closer in proximity to the Kentucky Derby, a decision not without a small element of risk. With only $150,000 in graded earnings to date, an unexpectedly poor effort in the Wood might leave Eskendereya on the outside looking in come Derby time with few remaining opportunities to grab additional graded earnings. In general, however, a truly bad performance by the favorite seems inconceivable on paper.
The likely second choice in the wagering is AWESOME ACT (Awesome Again), who invaded from England for trainer Jeremy Noseda to win the Gotham S. (G3) over the inner dirt in impressive fashion. That was also the chestnut's first appearance on dirt after running exclusively on turf and synthetic previously. He first came to attention on this side of the pond in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G2) at Santa Anita, where he made a belated rally for fourth.
The other main players both wintered in Florida. JACKSON BEND (Hear No Evil) has yet to equal his best BRIS Speed ratings from his juvenile campaign in two starts for Nick Zito this season. Though he finished second in both the Holy Bull S. (G3) and Fountain of Youth, the Florida-bred will have to elevate his game and prove he wants to go farther than nine furlongs. SCHOOLYARD DREAMS (Stephen Got Even) was re-routed to the Wood earlier in the week from Saturday's Illinois Derby (G3) at Hawthorne, where he might have gone favored. From the same connections that campaigned dual classic-placed Musket Man last season, the bay enters off runner-up finishes in the Sam F. Davis S. (G3) and Tampa Bay Derby (G3), the latter in a bizarrely tight photo to Odysseus (Malibu Moon).
The remaining two entrants are in deep. MOST HAPPY FELLA (Ecton Park), who shares a name with the prominent Standardbred who won the Pacing Triple Crown in 1970, recently defeated New York-bred allowance/optional claiming foes while CARNIVORE (Giant's Causeway) enters fresh off a seven-length maiden win at Laurel.
EIGHTYFIVEINAFIFTY (Forest Camp), who turned heads with a sparkling 17 1/4-length maiden win over the inner dirt in January, will make a highly-anticipated return to the track in the $200,000 Bay Shore S. (G3) over seven furlongs. The sophomore was heavily favored in the February 6 Whirlaway S. in his follow-up, but bolted around the clubhouse turn after his bit broke in two and his bridle came loose. The colt required 14 stitches to repair cuts to his legs following that incident, but has been given plenty of time to recover and looks the strongest in the field of seven.
Others of note are Fred "Cappy" Capossela S. winner CASTANEDA (Yonaguska); RAYNICK'S JET (A. P Jet), an impressive winner of a state-bred allowance last time; and the stakes-placed Californian HURRICANE IKE (Graeme Hall), who makes his dirt debut for trainer John Sadler.