03/31/2010 11:00PM

Different motives for Derby favorites


NEW YORK - Lookin At Lucky and Eskendereya, who to date have separated themselves from the rest of the 3-year-old classic candidates, will have their final preps for the Triple Crown on Saturday. While both are odds-on morning-line favorites - Lookin At Lucky is 4-5 in a 10-horse Santa Anita Derby, Eskendereya 4-5 in a six-horse Wood - the expectations surrounding them are as different as the two colts are.

Eskendereya delivered the knockout performance of the prep season so far, winning the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 20 by 8 1/2 lengths. Now both his fans and his skeptics want to see him do it again in the Wood and will probably be disappointed by anything less than another dominant daylight victory from a colt whose two stakes victories have been by a combined 15 3/4 lengths.

Lookin At Lucky, on the other hand, keeps doing the same thing again and again, and doing it well. He has already won $1.4 million and five graded stakes races, all of them by 1 1/2 lengths or less. His handlers are approaching the Santa Anita Derby as a pure prep for the main event in Louisville, having seen enough from him winning his season and dirt debut in the Rebel on March 13 that they are looking only for an easy bridge race on Saturday.

The two of them have flip-flopped in the public eye during this year's unusually early Derby Futures pools. In the first pool, which closed six days before the Fountain of Youth, Lookin At Lucky was the favorite among individual betting interests at 8-1 off his 2-year-old form. Eskendereya was 22-1 with only a solid but unspectacular January allowance-race victory on his 2010 record.

The Fountain of Youth performance, however, made Eskendereya the 5-1 favorite in the pool that closed March 7, with the still-idle Lookin At Lucky going up a point to 9-1. Then his winning return in the Rebel made him the narrow favorite at 9-2 in the third pool, which closed last Sunday, with Eskendereya still 5-1.

It was no surprise that Lookin At Lucky's price plummeted off his Rebel, a performance even better than it looked on paper. He clipped heels with a half-mile to go, regathered himself, and rallied relentlessly to win in his first start on dirt and off an 11-week layoff. He ran a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 97, suggesting he had improved from 2 and 3 and that transitioning from California's synthetic tracks to dirt was not going to be an issue this spring.

Eskendereya's stock went up, even though his price didn't change between pools 2 and 3, in the Florida Derby on March 20. He passed that race to await the Wood, but two colts he had thrashed in the Fountain of Youth, Ice Box and Pleasant Prince, came back to run one-two in the division's first Grade 1 race of the season. While both of them probably improved, and both got more favorable trips and setups than they did in the slower-paced Fountain of Youth, it flattered Eskendereya and bolstered the strong 106 Beyer he earned in the Fountain of Youth.

While the primary reason Eskendereya went to the Wood rather than the Florida Derby was to give him a final prep four rather than six weeks out, another was that the colt (or at least a substantial interest in him) reportedly was for sale and the Wood provided another two weeks to get a deal done. If that's still the case, it's reasonable to suspect that his camp isn't quite as casual as Lookin At Lucky's about how sharp he is on Saturday. A disappointing performance would be a blow to both his value and his reputation.

Lookin At Lucky seems in the same sort of position as Street Sense was three years ago: A 2-year-old champion who narrowly won his 3-year-old debut and then had a deliberately easy final prep over a synthetic track. Street Sense ended up running second in a four-horse photo in a formless and bizarrely slow-paced Blue Grass, and some lost faith, concluding he was no better than the mediocre horses inches away from him at the finish. Three weeks later, he trounced those horses in the Derby.

That might prove worth remembering on the first Saturday in May if Lookin At Lucky is less than dazzling on the first Saturday in April.