04/26/2010 11:00PM

Derby defection biggest in years


NEW YORK - Soon after word leaked Sunday morning that Eskendereya would not start in the Kentucky Derby, it was noted that this was the second straight year the Derby lost its favorite close to the race. Last year, of course, I Want Revenge was scratched Derby morning because of an ankle issue. But that's where the similarities end. Let's get one thing straight here: I Want Revenge having to come out of that Derby was nothing at all like Eskendereya having to withdraw.

At best, I Want Revenge would have been a 7-2 to 4-1 favorite, and even if he duplicated his best prior race, that did not make him a cinch to win. Eskendereya, on the other hand, would have been 2-1 or even less on Saturday, an incredibly short price when you consider 20 individual betting interests are in play, making him the strongest Derby favorite in years. Moreover, if Eskendereya were able to replicate either his domination of the Wood Memorial or the Fountain of Youth, it would have meant that everyone else would be running for second money. That is how much of an advantage Eskendereya had on this Derby field.

The defection of such a dominant favorite so close to the Derby does not happen that often, which got me to thinking when the last time something like this occurred. My memory isn't what it used to be, so there is a chance I missed someone, but all I could come up with was A.P. Indy in 1992, Sir Gaylord in 1962, and Gen. Duke in 1957. None of those cases, however, was even remotely analogous to this one. A.P. Indy would have been only second choice in the betting to Arazi, and while Sir Gaylord and Gen. Duke would have been favorites, none of these three approached the Derby off the kind of overwhelming scores that Eskendereya fashioned. In that regard, I opined in this space a few weeks ago that arguably the last horse to win his final two Derby preps in the manner of Eskendereya was Spectacular Bid in 1979.

This is why the racing fan in me feels sick, and yes, cheated, at Eskendereya's awful luck. Breeders, owners, and trainers might wait a long time for a horse like Eskendereya to come along. But racing fans wait a long time for one like this, too.

Now, this Derby is a much more wide-open race with a dramatically higher number of possible winners. My best projection has Lookin At Lucky and Sidney's Candy as the first two favorites at respective odds of around 4-1 and 5-1. I think Lookin At Lucky will be the favorite because he was 4-5 to Sidney's Candy's 7-2 in the Santa Anita Derby. And while Sidney's Candy did crush Lookin At Lucky that day, Lookin At Lucky had that bad trip. In addition, we know Lookin At Lucky can handle dirt, but we don't know that about Sidney's Candy. And we know Lookin At Lucky can close, but we don't know if Sidney's Candy can be as effective when he isn't controlling a slow pace. But Sidney's Candy's paper record is impressive, and I don't think these two will be that far apart in odds.

After that, I anticipate a sizeable gap back to a group that would include Ice Box, Endorsement, the filly Devil May Care, Dublin, Line of David, Awesome Act, and Super Saver. I think these horses will be in the 10-1 to 15-1 range. It's possible that Devil May Care could take a bit of steam. She can definitely run. In fact, I'm now even thinking about picking her. But the thing is, the Derby is a linemaker's nightmare because year in and year out, it attracts some of the strangest betting you'll see. Many times you see horses who should be more than 100-1 go off at less than 40-1. So I almost expect Devil May Care would take extra money for no other reason than that she is a filly. Anyone, however, could emerge from this group as third choice in the betting. If you held my feet to the fire, right now I would guess Ice Box might be the third choice because of the way he came from far back to upset the Florida Derby.

All of which leads to one thing that Eskendereya's defection did not change about this Derby: It is still loaded with speed. Among front-runners Conveyance, Line of David, Sidney's Candy, and Discreetly Mine, and early pace-pressers Endorsement, American Lion, Super Saver, and Paddy O'Prado, the pace should be strong if not hot, and a premium will be placed on those who can legitimately finish.

Also, Eskendereya's withdrawal could even have a major impact on Friday's Kentucky Oaks. Devil May Care would have been a solid second choice in the Oaks to Blind Luck off her strong win last time in the nine-furlong Bonnie Miss Stakes. But with Devil May Care in the Derby, it means that Blind Luck might wind up as low as odds-on in the Oaks, no matter how big the field is. And why shouldn't Devil May Care take a shot in the Derby? The Beyer Speed Figure of 100 that Devil May Care earned in the Bonnie Miss would be one of only three-triple digit Beyers in this Derby, and just a single point off Endorsement's best Derby Beyer of 101.