04/05/2010 12:00AM

Derby preps talk of the town

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Barbara D. Livingston
Eskendereya runs away from his rivals in the Wood Memorial, earning a career-top Beyer Speed Figure of 109.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The richest Kentucky Derby prep race in the country will be run at Oaklawn Park on Saturday when $1 million will be on the line in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, yet all anyone wanted to talk about on the backstretch here on Monday morning was the runaway victory by Eskendereya in the , both last Saturday.

Heck, it's just about all anyone in the sport wanted to talk about over the past 48 hours. Even with Zenyatta scheduled to arrive here on Tuesday for the Apple Blossom on Friday, Derby talk was in full tilt, owing to a pair of noteworthy, yet wildly different, races on Saturday involving the top two choices for the May 1 Derby, Eskendereya and Lookin At Lucky.

Eskendereya moved to the top of the Derby class with his 9 3/4-length victory in the Wood Memorial. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 109, a lifetime best and considerably faster than the figs earned by the winners of Saturday's other major Derby preps - Sidney's Candy, who got a Beyer Figure of 100 in the Santa Anita Derby, and American Lion, who got a 98 for his victory in the .

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Eskendereya was flown back to Florida on Sunday morning, as previously planned, and will remain with trainer Todd Pletcher at the Palm Meadows training center until shipping to Churchill Downs on April 20 along with Pletcher trainees Discreetly Mine, Mission Impazible, and Rule, all of whom are also pointing to the Derby.

Jackson Bend, a distant second to Eskendereya in the Wood - mirroring the result of the Fountain of Youth - is also headed to the Derby, and so too third-place finisher Awesome Act.

Jackson Bend was scheduled to go to Kentucky this week, said trainer Nick Zito, who also has the Florida Derby winner Ice Box for the Kentucky Derby. Ice Box was sent to Kentucky on Sunday.

Zito said Jackson Bend "established himself as a very, very solid horse no matter what."

"He runs good all the time, right or wrong?" Zito said. "I think if you said, 'Nick, you're going to be second [in the Derby],' Nick Zito would say to you, 'Where do I sign?' There are going to be some horses in there that ran on synthetic that'll probably get beat 100 lengths."

Zito had high praise for Eskendereya.

"This horse is going to be a very, very solid favorite," Zito said of Eskendereya. "He's going to be one of the shortest favorites in a while."

Awesome Act will remain in New York until the week of the Derby, trainer Jeremy Noseda said.

Lookin At Lucky, who finished third in the Santa Anita Derby after a rough trip, "looked really good" the day after the race, trainer Bob Baffert said Monday from Keeneland, where he was attending the same 2-year-old sale at which he purchased Lookin At Lucky one year ago.

"After the race at Oaklawn," Baffert said, referring to last month's Rebel Stakes, "it took him a few days to get back on his feet. He came out of this really good."

Baffert was still upset with the ride jockey Garrett Gomez gave Lookin At Lucky, but he allowed himself a joke or two, and said there was no chance Gomez would be replaced for the Derby, even though they also got in trouble in the Rebel.

"I said before the race I just wanted to get out of the race alive," Baffert said. "We almost didn't. That's why I was so upset at Garrett. That's two times in a row he's almost gone down. It's like going to the World Series and your number-one pitcher throws two fastballs into the stands. We live by these horses. You can't put them in danger."

Baffert said Lookin At Lucky would be flown to Kentucky early next week.

Sidney's Candy also will soon head to Kentucky along with his John Sadler-trained stablemate, the filly Crisp, who is pointing to the Kentucky Oaks.

"He won with a lot in the tank," Sadler said of Sidney's Candy, who has yet to race on a dirt surface.

Of the Santa Anita Derby runners, only Lookin At Lucky and Sidney's Candy are guaranteed spots in the Kentucky Derby field. More than 20 horses, the race's maximum, are scheduled to be entered in the Derby. If that happens, graded stakes earnings determines the starting field.

Setsuko, who finished second in the Santa Anita Derby, and Caracortado, an unlucky fourth after being impacted by the traffic trouble on the turn, both are currently outside the top 20 and will need defections from those above them to get in. Their trainers, Richard Mandella and Mike Machowsky, respectively, both said they would run in the Derby if they could get in.

"We were just practicing for the Derby," a giddy Mandella said right after the race.

American Lion, a disappointment in two previous starts at Santa Anita this winter, "picked the right day to show up," trainer Eoin Harty said. The Illinois Derby was the first start for American Lion on dirt after making all his prior starts on synthetic surfaces.

"I don't think he's a horse that wants to be rated," Harty said.

American Lion has been sent to Keeneland, where he will train for the time being. Harty said American Lion will "work at least once over at Churchill" before the Derby.

Yawanna Twist, who finished second in the Illinois Derby, is unlikely to have enough graded earnings to make the Kentucky Derby. Backtalk, who finished 14 lengths behind American Lion in third, does have enough graded earnings, largely owing to his 2-year-old campaign, and remains a possible Derby starter.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, David Grening, and Marcus Hersh