The Kentucky Derby winner might be running this weekend. Of course, I could’ve said that every weekend leading up to this point on the road for the roses, because there’s no telling what could happen between now and May 1st, but this particular Saturday is significant, in that it marks the last big hurrah for the two current favorites for the Kentucky Derby: Eskendereya and Lookin at Lucky. That’s right, the two biggest Derby prospects will wet their whistle one last time on the wanna-be wine before taking that fateful step on hallowed ground beneath the twin spires. For Eskendereya, the site for the last springboard will be in the historic Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct; for Looking at Lucky, the Grade I Santa Anita Derby at the great race place. Eskendereya is trained by Todd Pletcher, a man who has been denied the Kentucky Derby trophy nine times. Lookin at Lucky’s trainer, Bob Baffert, has won the Kentucky Derby three times, and aims to reclaim his glory days. Two proven colts looking to make one last impression before they meet in Louisville; two giants among trainers looking to settle their own private scores. But first, first they must clear this one final hurdle.
Does anyone stand a chance to beat them?
The Wood Memorial has drawn a field of six contenders; clearly, Eskendereya’s 8 ½ length win in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes has scared off some weak-kneed challengers. However, those that have dared to enter the fray with one of the Derby’s early favorites have a clout all of their own. One contender that stands a strong chance at turning the tables is Awesome Act, who won the prep race for the Wood Memorial, the Grade III Gotham Stakes, there at Aqueduct on March 6th. Awesome Act was stabled in England before the Gotham and did his training there before he went on to win his first start over conventional dirt in the traditional Wood prep. Another colt who is tossing his hat into the ring is Schoolyard Dreams, who was denied a victory in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby by a tempestuous Odysseus, who battled back after dropping out of contention to win the photo by a whisker. Schoolyard Dreams needs to land somewhere in the trifecta if he’s going to have enough graded earnings to run for the roses, and this hard-knocking colt deserves the chance. And don’t forget about Jackson Bend, who has been stalking Eskendereya ever since finishing second to that 8 ½-length victory in the Fountain of Youth. Jackson Bend may not look like a stayer, but he’s got heart; there’s a reason his trainer, Nick Zito, refers to the little gray/roan colt as “Mighty Mouse.” The other two entrants, Carnivore and Most Happy Fella, must be given props for having the guts and dreams just to feel like they’ve got a chance against this imposing crew, though they haven’t breathed a scent of stakes green between them.
Eskendereya needs to place within the top three of the $750,000 Wood Memorial, or this early Derby favorite is toast. Currently, he stands squarely outside the confines of the 20-horse bracket for sure-runners at #24; Awesome Act is safe at #15 from his Gotham victory, while Schoolyard Dreams sits at #29, and Jackson Bend is #34. There are exactly four weeks between this Saturday and the Kentucky Derby, so a race in between would not be much of a reality for any of these horses.
Lookin at Lucky is merely hoping for a smooth trade wind to send him sailing to Louisville. Lucky has only lost once in his career, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita by a dirty nose to Vale of York, and that loss came after Lucky had no choice but to take a ridiculously wide trip turning for home. After showing some guts and determination in his first start on dirt in the Rebel, Lookin at Lucky seems pretty unbeatable here. Bob Baffert doesn’t seem too concerned about this final step-he’s looking at the big picture, beyond the palm trees to the twin spires, and so to Lucky, Santa Anita’s Derby is one last check on his list to Louisville. There are at least two horses in the field of 10 who are on the warpath, looking to spoil Lucky’s bon voyage: the Grade II San Felipe winner, Sidney’s Candy, and the Grade II Robert B. Lewis victor, Caracortado. For them, this grade I gem is a ticket to Kentucky and a shot at immortality. While Sidney’s Candy shows early speed, and there will be some pace in this race, Caracortado will lap that speed up with a silver spoon and be ready to pounce once the cards are laid and the field turns for home. The $750,000 Santa Anita Derby can afford to send more than one horse to Kentucky if he runs in the top three, and both of these stakes-winning underdogs could use some extra change. On the graded-earning rankings currently, Sidney’s Candy is hovering on the edge at #19, and Caracortado is ranked #27. Lookin at Lucky is ranked #1 with $1,390,000 on his bankroll.
The Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course doesn’t offer any dominating stars, but it does feature the last hope for another trail-blazer, Backtalk. The son of Smarty Jones stirred up quite a bit of chatter in Fair Grounds in his last work, where he drilled faster than any horse had run in a six-furlong stakes race during the meet (1:09.60), leaving his trainer, Tom Amoss, concerned his colt may have left his race in New Orleans. Backtalk most recently won the Sportsman’s Paradise Stakes February 26 at Delta Downs, which isn’t exactly a tremendous leap-off point into heady Derby competition. As a 2-year-old, Backtalk did win the Grade III Bashford Manor Stakes and the Grade II Sanford Stakes. A victory in the Illinois Derby would cement him as a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender. He will be faced by another colt frothing to make the trip to Kentucky, American Lion. The Illinois Derby will be American Lion’s first start on dirt. His last victory came in the Grade III Hollywood Prevue Stakes; he ran third in the Robert B. Lewis and fourth in the San Felipe. It is possible dirt could serve as a launching pad for this Tiznow colt, or it will be the final straw that will break this Lion’s Derby dreams. Backtalk stands at #20 on the graded earnings list, while American Lion is #31.
As could be read from the early inconsistancies of this 3-year-old crop, the talent appears to be patchy. With only a handful of standouts so close to the first Saturday in May, this leaves the door open for a superstar to step into the limelight. Lookin at Lucky and Eskendereya are without a doubt the most impressive colts in their generation thus far in consistency and flair; the Kentucky Derby would be almost a wide-open affair should these two somehow not make the trip to Louisville. These last prep races are crucial to see how their form is peaking, and will give us a preview of the shape they will be in when they run the biggest race in their lives in less than a month’s time.
For approximate race post times and corresponding networks, please see the schedule at NTRA.com.