Zayat Stables’ Eskendereya likely solidified himself as the horse to beat in next month’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands (gr. I) by romping past five overmatched rivals in the $750,000 Wood Memorial (gr. I) (VIDEO) April 3 at Aqueduct in a dominating 9 3/4-length victory.
Sent off as the 1-2 favorite based on his 8 1/2-length score in the Feb. 20 Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park, Eskendereya needed to prove himself against grade I company and earn enough to make it into the starting gate in the May 1 Derby at Churchill Downs. Mission accomplished.
"The horse is amazing,'' said trainer Todd Pletcher, who now has his best chance to secure his first Derby win. "The further he goes the stronger he gets. The horse has natural stamina. It would be big to win the Derby. We’ll try to make that happen.”
Breaking from post three under the handling of John Velazquez, Eskendereya received a comfortable, three-wide stalking trip behind pacesetter Most Happy Fella and Jackson Bend. The sensible splits of :24.32, :49.21, and 1:13.54 also benefitted Eskendereya, as he waited until rounding the final turn to make his winning move. The son of Giant's Causeway put away those two rivals entering the stretch and took a commanding 3 1/2-length lead into the final furlong.
Velazquez was just a passenger on the chestnut colt as he cruised to the wire in a final time of 1:49.97 going nine furlongs on a fast main track. Jackson Bend finished well along the rail under Calvin Borel to take second and earn enough to qualify for the Derby.
Awesome Act, who was entering off an impressive win in the March 6 Gotham Stakes (gr. III), grabbed third and likely also banked enough graded earnings to make the field of 20 in the Derby. Schoolyard Dreams finished fourth.
"He allowed me to get him back off the slow pace, and once I did that I got into the clear on the backstretch and he settled really, really well until (Awesome Act) came to him on the outside on the backstretch," Velazquez said. "I gave him his head a little bit then, and he settled. Once we got to three-eighths pole he got on the bridle pretty strong, and when I gave him his head he just went up and up and up from the horses. He was just galloping. It was a good feeling.”
Eskendereya improved to 4-1-0 from six starts and is perfect in three starts this season. He began 2010 by winning a one-mile allowance contest at Gulfstream Park. He has now earned $725,700.
The winner was bred in Kentucky by Sanford Robertson and is out of the Seattle Slew mare Aldebaran Light. He was a $250,000 Keeneland September 2008 yearling sale purchase.
“He ran as well as he did in the Fountain of Youth," Pletcher said. "The thing that Johnny 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. We just wanted him in his rhythm. I said to (owner Ahmed) Zayat (last summer at Saratoga), this horse literally improves every week. A lot of times they improve to a certain point and then level off. He keeps doing it."
Eskendereya paid $3, $2.30, and $2.10. The exacta (3-5) returned $11.60, and the trifecta (3-5-2) was $20.
Trainer Nick Zito confirmed that he will take Jackson Bend to the Derby while also making sure to express how talented Eskendereya was.
"Obviously, Eskendereya just proved himself as a monster," Zito said. "For Jackson Bend, you cannot give him enough credit. I am very proud of him. I am very happy. We’re going to take him to Kentucky and see what happens. Kentucky is a place for a horse to get good. No one can say that this horse doesn’t belong there. Nobody.
"One thing we do know: Eskendereya is in a class by himself.”
Awesome Act's trainer, Jeremy Noseda, also confirmed his charge will move on to Churchill. He said the son of Awesome Again was hampered when losing a shoe out of the gate.