ESKENDEREYA NOW LIKELY KENTUCKY DERBY FAVORITE AFTER DOMINATION OF WOOD MEMORIAL FIELD – Questions about the role of favorite in the 136th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) on Saturday, May 1 at Churchill Downs were largely put to rest this past Saturday at New York’s Aqueduct – and fans did not have to wait for the finish line to identify the likely bettor’s choice.

Zayat Stable’s Eskendereya drew away from an accomplished field in mid-stretch and rolled to a 9 ¾-length victory in the $750,000 Wood Memorial (GI) for the second runaway victory in a row on the road to Churchill Downs.  The victory margin under jockey John Velazquez topped the flashy 8 ½-length margin from Eskendereya’s previous romp in the Fountain of Youth (GII) at Gulfstream Park.

Jackson Bend got up for second and Awesome Act, the British-based winner of the Gotham (GI) ran third.  The winner covered the 1 1/8-mile distance over a “fast” track in 1:49.97.

It was the second consecutive race in which trainer Nick Zito, a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, watched his multiple stakes winner Jackson Bend finish a distant second to Eskendereya.

"I didn't think Eskendereya could run as well as he did in the Fountain of Youth,” said Zito. “He ran better.”

The result left a broad smile on the face of Todd Pletcher, who appears to have his strongest hand heading into the Kentucky Derby, a race that the four-time Eclipse Award winner has failed to win despite saddling 24 starters during his career.  Eskendereya is the star of a deep group of Derby contenders trained by Pletcher – a collection that is now nine deep and has been dubbed “The Todd Squad.”  But Eskendereya is clearly Pletcher’s top hope at this point.

"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," he said. "We've had some good prep wins, but none as impressive as these two."

The son of European champion Giant’s Causeway earned $450,000 in the victory and now has more than enough earnings in graded stakes races to guarantee his spot in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.   Preference in the Derby is given to horses with the highest total earnings in graded stakes races.

“It would be big to win the Derby,” Pletcher said.  “We’ll try to make it happen.  We’ll do the best we can.”

WEST / SIDNEY’S CANDY EARNS DERBY TRIP IN SANTA ANITA DERBY ROMP, BUT GOING IS ROUGH BEHIND THE WINNER – Sidney’s Candy made it look easy in leading from start to finish to score a 4 ½-length victory in Saturday’s $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (GI) and earn a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby.  But there was mayhem behind the easy winner as favored Lookin At Lucky encountered major traffic woes on the far turn in a third-place finish that frayed the tempers of jockey Garrett Gomez, trainer Bob Baffert and Baffert’s wife, Jill.

While Sidney’s Candy was cruising in front under jockey Joe Talamo, Gomez had to take-up on Lookin At Lucky when the reigning 2-year-old champion encountered very tight quarters with five-sixteenths of a mile to run.  The Baffert-trained colt dropped back quickly and lost all chance.

Setsuko, last in the early going of the 1 1/8-mile race, rallied for second, while Lookin At Lucky recovered from his mishap to move up along the rail and finish a non-threatening third.

There was more drama after the field safely crossed the finish line as Gomez charged jockey Victor Espinoza, the rider of Who’s Up, the horse that appeared to create the tight spot for Lookin At Lucky.  Baffert was opening critical of the ride by Gomez, saying Lookin At Lucky should not have been in the trouble spot along the inside in a ride the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer called “horrendous.” And Jill Baffert got into the action in a verbal exchange with Espinoza.

hat was most clear after the race was that Sidney’s Candy, a homebred owned by diet guru Jenny Craig and named for her late husband, Sidney, has developed into a major Kentucky Derby contender for trainer John Sadler.  And benefiting from that growth is Talamo, the 20-year-old Louisiana native who was set to make his Kentucky Derby debut last spring aboard I Want Revenge, but that colt was scratched because of injury on the morning of the race.

The winner covered 1 1/8 miles on the synthetic Pro-Ride track in 1:48.

By Sunday, temperatures had cooled, all those involved had issued personal apologies and Baffert announced that Gomez would ride Lookin At Lucky in the Kentucky Derby.  But Santa Anita stewards handed Espinoza a three-day suspension.

"We got beat by a very nice horse (in Sidney’s Candy), and you can’t make any mistakes against a horse like that,” Baffert said.  “We’re not the favorite (for the Derby) anymore. We’ve dropped down a few notches, but what the hell. California 3-year-olds are very good this year. They’re tough.”

MIDWEST / CALIFORNIA INVADER AMERICAN LION TAKES ILLINOIS DERBY – After a disappointing start to his 3-year-old season, WinStar Farm’s American Lion returned to form with a front-running 2 ¾-length victory over favored Yawanna Twist in the $500,000 Illinois Derby (GII) at Hawthorne Park.

The winner covered 1 1/8 miles under jockey David Flores over a fast track in 1:51.31.  Trainer Eoin Harty made an equipment change as he removed blinkers from the colt and American Lion responded with a strong effort in his first ace on traditional dirt.

It was 11 3/4 lengths back to third-place finisher Backtalk.

The win gives Kentucky-based WinStar Farm three definite starters in the Kentucky Derby as American Lion, Delta Jackpot (GIII) winner Rule and Sunland Derby (GIII) winner Endorsement all have sufficient earnings to make the race.  Two more WinStar runners remain on the fence in Super Saver, who will run in next week’s Arkansas Derby, and Drosselmeyer, who could run in either the Toyota Blue Grass (GI) or Coolmore Lexington (GII) at Keeneland.

DERBY NOTES – Trainer Rick Dutrow, who saddled Big Brown to win the 2008 Derby, said he would train Champagne (GI) winner Homeboykris up to the “Run for the Roses” … Trainer Gary Contessa said that Eightfiveinafifty, a dazzling winner of the Bay Shore (GII) on Saturday at Aqueduct, would run next in either the Withers at Aqueduct of the $200,000 The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial (GIII) at Churchill Downs.