04/26/2010 9:59AM

Gut Check


It's hard to feel sorry for Toyota. Nobody sheds a tear for Goldman Sachs. And it is difficult to muster much compassion for an organization of such relentless, clockwork success as the Todd Pletcher stable over the loss of a very good shot to win the Kentucky Derby. But we do, anyway.

We do because losing Eskendereya from this year's Derby field means that fans have wasted a considerable amount of energy appreciating the red colt's every move and waxing rhapsodic over the prospect that he might have made a special mark. We do because nobody likes to see a horse in any kind of discomfort, even the relatively minor distress of what appears to be Eskendereya's soft tissue damage. And we do because there were those cold-blooded gamblers in the crowd that were counting on a pari-mutuel stampede toward Eskendereya that would drive up the price on other lively contenders.

Eskendreya's leg injury and Derby exodus was not necessarily predictable, but it should not have been surprising, given the fact that he had raced just six times in his life and only twice this year in stakes company. Whether or not part of his porcelain handling was due to the banking issues of his owner, Ahmed Zayat, is hard to measure. There is also the common wisdom afoot that such relative inexperience has become the norm, and that Pletcher was only following a preordained plan. It is clear, though, that Eskendereya had yet to go through any kind of 3-year-old wringer that might have been a good pre-Derby innoculation, but maybe it didn't matter. Maybe he was his own wrecking crew, and the rest of the class is lucky he is staying in the barn.

If racing fans are not used to such late-hour defections of Kentucky Derby hotshots by now, at least they can be assured it will happen again. In 1938, Stagehand won the Santa Anita Derby and then beat Seabiscuit in the Santa Anita Handicap before heading East. Tuning up for the Derby, he was third in the Derby Trial, then spiked a fever. He was out. Gen. Duke was the fastest 3-year-old of 1957 and likely favorite over a Derby field that included Bold Ruler, Gallant Man and Round Table. He was scratched Derby morning with what turned out to be a broken foot. In 1962, Sir Gaylord (later better known as Secretariat's brother) was heavily favored to win the Derby on Thursday but scratched on Friday. He never raced again.

I still haven't gotten over losing both Graustark and Buckpasser from the 1966 Derby mix, but at least Buckpasser returned in June to win his next 13 races. Small consolation, I know. And then there was the carnage of 1982, when Florida Derby and Flamingo winner Timely Writer (colic) and Arkansas Derby winner Hostage (sesamoid fracture) were both lost within 10 days of the big one.

A And so on. Remember Dinard, Allen Paulson's tough little gelding? He came out of a thorough testing at the hands of Best Pal in the winter of 1991, winning the Santa Anita Derby, and arrived at Churchill Downs the likely Derby favorite. He injured his knee, but at least he had company. The week before, Cahill Road had won the Wood Memorial and was lame before he got to the winner's circle.

In more recent years, the club of which Eskendereya is now a member grew to include Santa Anita Derby winner A.P. Indy (cracked hoof), Jim Beam winner Event of the Year (knee) and Wood Memorial winners Buddha (bruised foot) and Coronado's Quest (psychological issues). The wound is still fresh from last year's Derby morning defection of Wood winner I Want Revenge, but for consolation, Eskendereya need only wander down Pletcher's Belmont Park shed row and check with Quality Road, who supposedly had the Derby at his mercy last year until his hoof came unglued.

There are more, I'm sure, and every fan has his or her own Derby heartbreak. As Pletcher's people come to terms with the injury to their big horse in the hopes that he can compete again -- or at least be a healthy animal -- it remains a cold, hard fact that in the case of the Kentucky Derby, the race is bigger than any individual horse, and the show will go on without a glance in the rearview mirror.