Barring the unforeseen, Zayat Stables' ESKENDEREYA (Giant's Causeway) should march into Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May as the solid favorite in the Kentucky Derby (G1) after another blowout prep victory, this time in the $750,000 Wood Memorial S. (G1). An outstanding 8 1/2-length victor the Fountain of Youth S. (G2) in his previous start, the Todd Pletcher-trained chestnut ran his competition into the ground again in Saturday's 1 1/8-mile fixture at Aqueduct, gliding through the stretch to post a 9 3/4-length demolition as the 1-2 favorite in a field of six. Under John Velazquez, Eskendereya completed the course in 1:49 4/5 and paid $3, $2.30 and $2.10.
Except for 5-2 second choice Awesome Act (Awesome Again), who stumbled at the start and lost a shoe, the field was away in good order. Outsider Most Happy Fella (Ecton Park) was sent to the front from his inside post, tracked closely by Jackson Bend and Eskendereya, who rated in third through the opening half-mile. Velazquez guided the favorite out of the pocket for a clear run to the outside of the top pair after fractions of :24 1/5 and :49 1/5, and was sent for the lead rounding the far turn as Most Happy Fella clicked off three-quarters in 1:13 2/5.
As Eskendereya made the lead at the quarter pole, the main competition from the back appeared as it would come from Awesome Act, who had recovered from his early trouble but had been under a stranglehold by Julien Leparoux for some time. By the time he was allowed to go on, however, Eskendereya had already kicked in to high gear and waltzed home an easy winner.
"It's amazing. The further he goes, the stronger he gets," Pletcher said. "He's a horse that has natural stamina. It would be big to win the Derby. We'll try to make that happen. He goes back to Palm Meadows (in Florida on Sunday) and will stay there for a couple of weeks and hopefully ship to Louisville on (April 20).
"He ran as well as he did in the Fountain of Youth. The thing Johnny (Velazquez) did today was take pretty good care of him from the eighth pole to the wire. There was more there than what we saw, even as impressive as it was.
"He's not at the mercy of anyone's pace. He sets his own pace."
Jackson Bend, at 7-1, fought back along the inside to edge Awesome Act for second and returned $3.90 and $2.60 while the second choice returned $2.20. Schoolyard Dreams (Stephen Got Even) was never a major factor finishing fourth, 1 1/2 lengths behind Awesome Act, and was followed home by longshots Carnivore (Giant's Causeway) and Most Happy Fella. The exacta was worth $11.60 and the 3-5-2 trifecta paid $20.
The top three are all expected to contest the Kentucky Derby.
Runner-up in his debut over the turf at Saratoga on Labor Day, Eskendereya was entered for the turf again in the Pilgrim S. at Belmont Park on October 4. When that race was moved off the grass and on to dirt due to inclement weather, Eskendereya dominated his four rivals by 7 1/4 lengths. Only ninth over Pro-Ride in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) after encountering trouble heading into the clubhouse turn, Eskendereya rebounded to take a nine-furlong allowance at Gulfstream by 1 1/4 lengths on January 7 followed by the nine-furlong Fountain of Youth. Owner Ahmed Zayat decided to skip the March 20 Florida Derby (G1) with his colt, favoring the Wood Memorial which is closer in proximity to the Kentucky Derby. With this tally, the earnings from which ensured his position in the starting gate at Churchill Downs, Eskendereya improved his line to 6-4-1-0, $725,700.
Bred in Kentucky by Sanford Robertson, Eskendereya was a $250,000 Keeneland September purchase. Out of Aldebaran Light (Seattle Slew), a half-sister to Grade 2 hero Blazonry (Hennessy), Eskendereya counts as a half-brother Balmont (Stravinsky), who captured the Middle Park S. (Eng-G1) and Gimcrack S. (Eng-G2) in 2003. He also has a juvenile half-sister named Wear Red (Henny Hughes) and yearling half-sister by First Samurai. Eskendereya's fourth dam was Queen Sucree (*Ribot), the dam of 1974 Kentucky Derby winner Cannonade (Bold Bidder) and the ancestress of Grade 1-winning full siblings Stephan's Odyssey (Danzig) and Lotka (Danzig). Queen Sucree herself was a half-sister to the multiple champion Tosmah (Tim Tam) and the Grade 1-winning Halo (Hail to Reason), the sire of Kentucky Derby winners Sunny's Halo and Sunday Silence. All were out of Broodmare of the Year Cosmah (Cosmic Bomb).