04/04/2010 11:00PM

On to the Derby in rare style


NEW YORK - One thing that distinguishes Eskendereya from a boatload of others who went to the Kentucky Derby as the probable favorite is that Eskendereya heads to Louisville (by way of Palm Meadows) off two high-quality blowout wins in important prep races. There have been lots of horses who went to the Derby off one performance similar in quality to Eskendereya's 8 1/2-length romp in the Fountain of Youth, or much like his near 10-length runaway in Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. But there have been very few who have gone into the Kentucky Derby as the favorite off back-to-back performances of such high quality.

How few? I dug out the old Kentucky Derby past performances and came up with this:

Last year, I Want Revenge ran away with the Gotham and would have done the same in the Wood Memorial were it not for the world of trouble he encountered in that race, although he still won. But I Want Revenge, who would have been the Derby favorite, was scratched Derby morning, so he's out.

In 2008, Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby as the favorite off an Eskendereya-like win in the Florida Derby. But the Florida Derby was his only stakes start prior to the Kentucky Derby, so he's out.

In 2007, Curlin won the Rebel and Arkansas Derby in blowout fashion. But even those performances weren't sufficient to make Curlin the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, in which he finished third, so he's out, too.

In 2005, Bellamy Road went into the Derby, in which he finished seventh, off an enormous score in the Wood Memorial. But he's out because, like Big Brown, that was his only prior stakes win.

In 2001, Point Given won the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby before finishing a mystifying fifth in the Kentucky Derby. Point Given's prep wins were very, very good - very close to, but in my opinion not quite up to, the level of Eskendereya's last two starts.

The same is true, in my view, of Holy Bull in 1994. His wins in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass were close but not quite up to Eskendereya standards. For the record, Holy Bull finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby.

In 1992, Arazi came into the Derby off huge scores in the Prix Omnium and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, only to wind up a tired eighth. But he's out because one of those races was a 2-year-old event and thus by definition was not a Derby prep, and labeling the other race in France a Derby prep is too much of a stretch for me.

In 1989, the year he finished second in the Kentucky Derby to Sunday Silence in the first meeting of their great rivalry, Easy Goer went to Churchill Downs off victories in the Gotham and Wood. They were very impressive wins, but not even this Easy Goer fan thinks that they were quite up to the sum of what Eskendereya did in his last two starts.

In 1988, Winning Colors became the third and most recent filly to win the Kentucky Derby, doing so off overwhelming scores in the Santa Anita Oaks and Santa Anita Derby. But beyond being denied favorite status in her Derby by a mere few thousand dollars by Private Terms, Winning Colors would be out, anyway, because one of her preps came in a race restricted to fillies.

In order to find a horse who went into the Kentucky Derby as the favorite off the kind of two straight dominating performances by Eskendereya you have to go back to Spectacular Bid in 1979. Spectacular Bid's two starts before the Kentucky Derby were a 12-length runaway in the Flamingo, followed by a seven-length score in the Blue Grass. It should be noted that before the Flamingo, Spectacular Bid also won the Hutcheson by almost four lengths, the Fountain of Youth by 8 1/2 lengths, and the Florida Derby by 4 1/2 lengths. It also should be noted that Spectacular Bid was much the best winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and he is widely considered to be the best horse to be denied a sweep of the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.

So what does this all mean regarding Eskendereya's chances to win the Kentucky Derby? Eskendereya should be taken far more seriously than virtually all of the other hype horses we have seen go on to the Derby, many of whom wound up disappointing. And that is because horses like Eskendereya who go into the Derby off two of the sort of high-quality, blowout wins he has recently fashioned are just so rare.

Even if you agree that their prep scores weren't quite as compelling as Eskendereya's, horses like Curlin, Point Given, Holy Bull, and Easy Goer have proven to share the characteristic of a major, major horse, even if they didn't win on the first Saturday in May.

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