04/07/2010 2:04PM

Does Eskendereya have a weakness?

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The pacefigs for last weekend's preps:

Race Winner Moss Pace Figure line
Wood Memorial Race pacefigs 70-74-86-93-F96
  Eskendereya 64-73-85-93-F96
Santa Anita Derby Sidney's Candy 53-63-77-90-F93
Illinois Derby American Lion 60-73-86-92-F92

WOOD MEMORIAL

Ever noticed that no matter how fast horses run, they always have something left to prove?

So it is with Eskendereya.

He has run by far the fastest of these 3-year-olds, although Lookin At Lucky is no slouch. A mile and a quarter should be a piece of cake. Professionalism appears to be no problem. Todd Pletcher’s 0-for-24 in the Kentucky Derby is meaningless, because he’ll have multiple Derby trophies before you know it.

No, the biggest question Eskendereya must answer is how he will react to what might be a trickier pace scenario in the Derby.

His Florida Derby Wood Memorial paceline closely matches his Fountain of Youth numbers of 64-75-84-92-F95, and in both cases he was within easy striking distance in moderately paced races. But if Eskendereya had been in last year’s Kentucky Derby and had run at that rate of speed, he would have been ninth after a half-mile – and this Derby field should have more speed than last year’s did.

If Eskendereya is 10 lengths off the lead amidst a shower of sand with a half-mile to run, instead of breathing down the neck of the pacesetter, will that professionalism evaporate? And if he is hustled by John Velazquez to stay closer, will he perform as a confused Point Given did in 2001 under similar circumstances? In 2007, Curlin was another who didn’t make that pace adjustment smoothly.

My ESPN colleague Jerry Bailey has also drilled into my head – and he should know – that winning the Kentucky Derby in a 20-horse scrum often requires a horse with quick acceleration and the ability to make multiple moves, enabling a jockey to capitalize on openings as soon as those opportunities appear. We haven’t seen that acceleration from Eskendereya, but to be fair, we weren’t going to see eye-catching bursts in the Fountain of Youth and Wood, given the way those races were run. If the pace is quick enough in the Derby, Eskendereya indeed might streak by horses around the second turn like they were standing still.

These concerns can qualify as nit-picking, especially if a horse has clearly superior talent. There were similar issues with Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, and he rallied from far back when Kent Desormeaux somehow got through along the rail at every critical stage. Two years ago, Big Brown’s post position draw was disastrous, and it didn’t matter a bit.

Eskendereya is still the horse to beat, and a deserving Derby favorite. I’m just explaining why it sometimes isn’t as easy as it looks on paper. There are always questions to be answered.

SANTA ANITA DERBY

This could be a textbook example for Synthetic Handicapping Quandaries 101.

We know synthetics are much less favorable than dirt to early speed. We know that in Southern California, for example, jockeys have adjusted to this reality by riding less aggressively, and trainers are trying to put less speed into their horses.

But we also see the pendulum occasionally swing too far the other way, when quality front-runners are given such an effortless lead that even on synthetics they become very difficult to catch.

The poster child for the latter scenario is Sidney’s Candy. On dirt, his pacefigs would be that of a deep closer. In the Santa Anita Derby, he led every step.

What this means for the Kentucky Derby is open to much interpretation.

Clearly, Sidney’s Candy has much more natural speed than he has been required to show at Santa Anita. But in a pace battle with Rule, American Lion, and possibly Super Saver and other speed, his easy world could be turned upside down – unless, of course, he’s the kind of horse that can rate patiently and kick past the front-runners with plenty of mile-and-a-quarter stamina.

No one knows if Sidney’s Candy can do that – not John Sadler, not Joe Talamo, and certainly not horseplayers. In my experience, most horses in this situation fail miserably. In my opinion, Sidney's Candy is worth the risk only if he has considerable value on the Derby odds board.

Lookin At Lucky's Santa Anita Derby is a complete throw-out for obvious reasons. At this point, he remains a huge threat to Eskendereya – the primary threat - just as he was two weeks ago.

I find Setsuko a more appealing Kentucky Derby option than Sidney's Candy, assuming he makes the starting lineup. Setsuko was last early behind the leisurely pace, then rallied two paths wider than Lookin At Lucky to be running nicely at the finish. He's bred (Pleasantly Perfect) for dirt and distance, is improving, and will undoubtedly find a faster-paced race more to his liking. Anyone want to loan him another fifty thou?

ILLINOIS DERBY

American Lion got just what he needed – a switch from synthetics to dirt, where on a surface rewarding speed he found a pace scenario that enabled him to run freely and without he restraint he seems to detest.

But American Lion looks like the kind of horse that runs best when allowed to roll, and even when controlling the tempo in a fairly soft-paced Illinois Derby, he didn’t rack up the kind of War Emblem figure that would make him a bona fide classic threat. American Lion ran essentially the same figure with a dream trip in the Illinois Derby that Rule did while encountering pressure from start to finish in the Florida Derby.

His prep win notwithstanding, American Lion looks like a 75-1 shot for the Kentucky Derby.