EAST-WEST BATTLE SHAPES UP – IF FAVORITES STEP UP – When the sun rises on Saturday, April 3, only four weeks will remain before the $2 million-guaranteed Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) at Churchill Downs.  Saturday has taken on particular importance because the two horses who are considered the current favorites for the “Run for the Roses” – Eskendereya and Lookin At Lucky – will be competing on that day on opposite coasts in their final Kentucky Derby preps.

Wins by reigning 2-year-old champion Lookin At Lucky in the Santa Anita Derby (GI) at Southern California’s Santa Anita and Eskendereya in the Wood Memorial (GI) at New York’s Aqueduct would set up perhaps the strongest East-West Derby showdown since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989.  But a loss by one or both would throw open the doors to new hopefuls to enter an already over-crowded picture for the 136th running of America’s greatest race on Saturday, May 1.

WEST / CHAMPION LOOKIN AT LUCKY STAYS HOME FOR FINAL KENTUCKY DERBY PREP – Since the great Spectacular Bid established himself as the best of his generation at two and returned to dominate  the Kentucky Derby in 1979, only one juvenile champion – Street Sense in 2007 – has won both the 2-year-old title and the Derby’s roses.

Reigning juvenile champion Lookin At Lucky is the latest to pursue that difficult double, and could emerge as a strong favorite for the Kentucky Derby with a powerful performance against nine rivals in Saturday’s $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (GI).  The 1 1/8-mile race will be run over the synthetic Pro-Ride surface at Southern California’s Santa Anita.

The 3-year-old son of Smart Strike, who is bidding to give trainer Bob Baffert his fourth Kentucky Derby victory and a record sixth win in the Santa Anita Derby, is coming off an impressive win in his first race on conventional dirt in the Rebel Stakes (GIII) at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park.  Although Lookin At Lucky is a heavy 4-5 favorite, his opposition is solid and accomplished.  His main rivals include front-running San Felipe (GII) winner Sidney’s Candy (3-1), Robert B. Lewis (GII) winner Caracortado, and Sham (GII) winner Alphie’s Bet.

“I want to just come out of there healthy and alive,” said Baffert of Lookin At Lucky.  “It’ll be a hard race on him.  There’s some good horses in there.”

Regular jockey Garrett Gomez will ride Lookin At Lucky, who has lost only once in seven races.

EAST / ESKENDEREYA FACES CHALLENGE FROM AWESOME ACT IN WOOD – Zayat Stable’s Eskendereya, the current star of trainer Todd Pletcher’s small army of major Kentucky Derby contenders, could emerge as the favorite for the “Run for the Roses” with a strong effort in Saturday’s $750,000 Wood Memorial (GI) at Aqueduct.

   Eskendereya established his credentials as a Kentucky Derby contender with an 8 ½-length romp in the Fountain of Youth (GI) at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 20 and will have regular jockey John Velazquez as he takes on five rivals in the 86th running of the 1 1/8-mile Wood.

The son of European champion Giant’s Causeway heads the “Todd Squad” of Pletcher Derby hopes that also includes Rule, Super Saver, Mission Impazible, Aikenite, Discreetly Mine and Interactif.

"He has all of the tools you would like to see,” said Pletcher of Eskenereya, who currently is given the best chance to snap the trainer’s 0-for-24 streak in the Kentucky Derby.  “The one thing we’ve been confident in all along is that he wants to run the distance of the classic races."

Eskendereya’s major rival in the Wood appears to be the British-based Awesome Act, an impressive winner of the Gotham (GIII) at Aqueduct in his debut over a natural dirt surface.  A son of Awesome Again, who defeated perhaps the greatest field in American racing history in winning the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Churchill Downs, Awesome Act is trained by Jeremy Noseda and ridden by Julien Leparoux, the Churchill Downs-based Eclipse Award winner as America’s top jockey in 2009.

Also in the small Wood Memorial is Schoolyard Dreams, a narrow loser to Odysseus in the Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) for trainer Derek Ryan, who saddled Musket Man to finish third behind Mine That Bird in last year’s Kentucky Derby.    Another contender is the Nick Zito-trained Jackson Bend, third to Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth, who will be ridden by two-time Derby winner Calvin Borel.

The Wood Memorial undercard features the return of the highly regarded Eightyfiveinafifty in the $200,000 Bay Shore (GIII) at seven furlongs. Eightyfiveinafifty has been away from the races since he bolted on the first turn and did not finish as the 3-to-10 favorite in the Whirlaway at Aqueduct on Feb. 6.

MIDWEST / BACKTALK, AMERICAN LION LOOK FOR DERBY OPENING IN ILLINOIS DERBY – Graded stakes winners Backtalk and American Lion are among those trying to boost their Kentucky Derby credentials as they head a field of eight in Saturday’s $500,000 Illinois Derby (GII) at Hawthorne Park.

The Tom Amoss-trained Backtalk, winner of the Bashford Manor (GIII) at Churchill Downs and Saratoga’s Sanford (GII) last year, opened his 3-year-old campaign with a victory over a sloppy track in the Sportsman’s Paradise Stakes at Louisiana’s Delta Downs.

WinStar Farm’s American Lion, a son of Tiznow trained by Eoin Harty, will race on dirt for the first time after disappointing runs earlier this year on synthetic footing in the Robert B. Lewis and San Felipe (GII) at Santa Anita.   American Lion won the Hollywood Prevue (GIII) at two.

Others in the solid Illinois Derby field include Robert B. Lewis runner-up Dave in Dixie and Gotham runner-up Yawanna Twist.

SIX LATE NOMINATIONS TO KENTUCKY DERBY, TRIPLE CROWN – Steel Your Face Stable’s Yawanna Twist, the runner-up in the Gotham who is entered to run in Saturday’s $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, heads a group of six late nominees to the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown.

Other horses made eligible through a $6,000 payment by their owners before the March 27 late nomination deadline are Carnivore, Thomas Baines, Raise the Bridle, Posse Power and Game Ball.