Smile Politely

Kentucky Derby will be two-horse race

EskendereyaI have been waiting until the last possible moment to make up my mind about this year’s crop of 3-year-old horses. Early in the year, I made the remark that it looked like it was going to be a much weaker year than last year. I mean, come on, last year was pretty fabulous, what with I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, Quality Road, Rachel Alexandra, Summer Bird, and Musket Man turning in consistently good performances prior to the first Saturday in May; it really doesn’t get any better than that. Unfortunately, three of those horses never made it to the Kentucky Derby, and a 50-1 longshot ended up cleaning house when the big moment came and the roses were on the line. This year, only two horses stand out in consistency and raw talent: Eskendereya and Lookin at Lucky. As far as I’m concerned, the Kentucky Derby is setting up to be a two-horse race while eighteen bumper cars get in the way; but I believe this year, the winner isn’t going to be paying back in buckets.

Much like Big Brown in 2008, the two early favorites for the Kentucky Derby stand head and shoulders above the rest of the crop in sheer star power. Eskendereya has won his last three starts by a combined margin of 19 ½ lengths; the most impressive of those victories came in graded stakes company, the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, and the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He has won six of four starts, with his only time failing to run in the money coming with a 9th-place finish in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over the Santa Anita Pro-Ride. If you toss that race out, Eskendereya is a firecracker, and hasn’t been challenged since that defeat. His biggest Achilles’ Heel is his trainer, Todd Pletcher. Though he’s the hottest trainer in racing right now, and will likely enter at least six horses in the Kentucky Derby this year, Pletcher is 0-24 in attempts to win the roses. Also, it’s unclear how Eskendereya will be able to handle a bad trip, which has slain many a Derby favorite; in each of his victories, the Giant’s Causeway colt has had great trips.

Lucky RebelThis is what gives Lookin at Lucky the edge. Though the beginning of Lucky’s career echoed his name, the colt’s 4-race win streak was broken by a dirty nose on his home track in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to Vale of York. Since that race, Lucky has shown himself to be a colt with a lot of guts and raw talent. His first start over dirt, in the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, Lucky endured a horrendous trip that would’ve stifled any other horse, and somehow he overcame being checked, squeezed, and stopped to win the Rebel by a head over Noble’s Promise. In his next start, which was supposed to be nothing more than an expedition race to give him a final prep on the road to Louisville, Lucky was completely shut out on the turn and boxed in, then made a furious surge on the inside to place 3rd in the Santa Anita Derby. Lucky has guts to spare, and knows how to pick himself up and fight back in a big field. And he is being conditioned by 3-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer, Bob Baffert, and wears the same Mike Pegram silks as the horse who gave Baffert his second Derby victory, Real Quiet. Real Quiet is famous for being the only horse in history to lose the Triple Crown by a nostril. Could Lookin at Lucky be déjà vu for Baffert come May? Real Quiet, too, was a bay colt from California, though he didn’t boast the record of Lookin at Lucky. Could Lucky be Real Quiet, version 2.0?

Frankly, it would shock me if any horse other than Eskendereya or Lookin at Lucky won the Kentucky Derby. Sure, there are some contenders who have shown some promise, but flashes of greatness, like these two? Not so much. Except for the now-sidelined Odysseus, no other horse has shown the recoverability like Lucky, and not a single horse has been able to come close to Eskendereya in his last two starts. The 136th Kentucky Derby will be a reunion of the big trainers, the Rat Pack of Racing: Baffert, Pletcher, Lukas, and Zito. It’s like the glory days have returned to Churchill, and because of this, I predict we will see an exciting edition of the Triple Crown for 2010. Eight weeks of heart-stopping drama await us. Now it’s down to eight days and counting.

So what you’ve got to ask yourself is, are you feelin’ Lucky?


The 136th running of the Grade I Kentucky Derby will air live on NBC next Saturday, May 1st. Check your local listings for airtimes.

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