01/06/2011 5:56PM

2010 Eclipse Awards: Eskendereya

Barbara D. Livingston

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’ ”
– John Greenleaf Whittier

The most exciting question of the 2010 racing season was left unanswered: How good might Eskendereya have been?

Bred by Sanford Robertson and sold for $250,000 to Ahmed Zayat at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2008, Eskendereya debuted on turf closing day at Saratoga in 2009. The selection of a turf race was understandable, because his sire, the versatile Giant’s Causeway, had won most of the top grass stakes in Great Britain and Ireland before a neck loss in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Eskendereya finished second after a late rally from midpack and was entered back four weeks later in the Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont Park. When the Pilgrim came off the grass, trainer Todd Pletcher had a decision to make. He opted to leave the colt in, and the result was a runaway victory.

“I’d say that he’s typical of the Giant’s Causeways and probably good on any surface . . . we have a lot of options,” Pletcher said afterward.

After a difficult trip in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface, Eskendereya was freshened for two months in Florida and made his 3-year-old debut in early January, posting a front-running allowance victory over the Grade 2-placed Thank U Philippe.

Next up for Eskendereya was the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes against Jackson Bend, an early-maturing multiple stakes winner coming off a narrow loss in the Holy Bull. Eskendereya prompted the pace down the backstretch, took the lead on his own power around the far turn, and drew away by more than eight lengths. The Beyer Speed Figure came back a gaudy 106 and stamped Eskendereya as the fastest 3-year-old in Florida.

Exactly six weeks later, Eskendereya shipped to New York for the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, and everyone wondered if he could run that well again.
Nope, he could do better. After tracking the early leaders, the big chestnut gathered a head of steam near the quarter pole and simply ran away from the field under a motionless John Velazquez. The Wood Beyer was a 109.

Eskendereya was now 4 for 4 on dirt by almost 27 lengths and the clear favorite for the upcoming Kentucky Derby, so much so that oddsmaker Mike Battaglia planned on setting his price in the vicinity of 9-5, an extreme measure of respect in a 20-horse field.

Perhaps those odds would have been a bargain on Eskendereya, but he never made the program. Pletcher noticed some inflammation in the colt’s left foreleg after a gallop the Saturday before the Derby, and the swelling worsened overnight. Just three days before the Derby draw, Eskendereya was withdrawn, becoming the second straight Wood winner to miss the Derby.

Pletcher, like everyone else, was left to wonder about so much promise unfulfilled.

“His Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial were as good a performance as we have had and as good as we’ve seen from a 3-year-old,” he said. “I’d rank him up there as among the best we’ve had. He was continuing to develop and was getting better and better. And as I’ve said, a mile and a quarter and a mile and a half were distances that were going to suit him.”

A few weeks later came the announcement that Eskendereya had been retired because of a soft-tissue injury. “I think he could have won the Triple Crown, not just the Kentucky Derby,” Zayat said.

He might have, he just might have.

PAST PERFORMANCES: Eskendereya's 2010 season PPs (PDF)

KEY RACE REPLAY: Wood Memorial at Aqueduct >>