03/29/2010 11:00PM

Eskendereya has tools of classic winner

Barbara D. Livingston
Eskendereya is one of seven possible Kentucky Derby starters for trainer Todd Pletcher. Eskendereya will get his final Derby prep in Saturday's Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct.

Let others speculate how many horses trainer Todd Pletcher will bring to this year's Kentucky Derby. As far as Pletcher is concerned, it's not about quantity, it's about quality.

"Hopefully, we show up with one and with the right one," said Pletcher, who still seeks his first Derby trophy after having gone winless with 24 starters in nine previous attempts.

Given the results of the early Derby prep races and with several more preps remaining, it's not inconceivable that Pletcher could have as many as seven starters in the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 1.

Though Pletcher could never publicly rank his Derby prospects - which alphabetically include Aikenite, Discreetly Mine, Eskendereya, Interactif, Mission Impazible, Rule, and Super Saver - he said Tuesday that Eskendereya belongs at the top of any national list of prospects, behind only Lookin At Lucky, the 2009 juvenile champion.

Both horses will run this weekend, with Eskendereya starting in the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Bob Baffert-trained Lookin At Lucky in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

Pletcher believes Eskendereya has all the tools to be effective in the Triple Crown races, which start with the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles and conclude with the Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles.

"The one thing that we've been very confident in all along is he wants to run the distances of the classic races," Pletcher said. "I don't see a mile and a quarter or even a mile and a half being a problem. He has natural stamina, he's physically a strong horse. He holds up to his races."

Pletcher said Eskendereya, a son of Giant's Causeway owned by Ahmed Zayat, struck him as a turf horse at first, but after he finished second in his turf debut at Saratoga, Eskendereya began training better on the dirt. He won his first start on dirt by 7 1/2 lengths when the Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont came off the grass and was run as a one-turn mile.

Aside from a temperature that kept him out of the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park last December, Eskendereya had no issues during his 2-year-old season, Pletcher said. Pletcher believes the horse has made big strides from 2 to 3.

"You've seen him kind of mature from that little bit of a boy look at the end of his 2-year-old season to a more mature, chiseled type of 3-year-old who has all the physical tools you'd like a horse to have," Pletcher said. "It's nice to have one you're able to train the way you want to, that physically, he keeps coming back at you."

Racing fans have been wanting to see Eskendereya run again since his tour-de-force 8 1/2-length victory in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 20. That still stands as the "wow" performance of the prep season.

"That was a huge race," said John Velazquez, aboard Eskendereya for both of his victories this year and who will ride again Saturday. "I thought he had a really good chance, I didn't think he would dominate the field the way he did. The way he did it was very impressive."

Eskendereya was expected to run back in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 20. But two days before entries, Zayat changed course, saying the six weeks from the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby was too much time between races.

Pletcher, who ran Rule in the Florida Derby, was fine with that decision and has not trained Eskendereya any differently leading into the Wood. The colt had six weeks from his first-level allowance win at Gulfstream on Jan. 7 to the Fountain of Youth and six weeks from that race to the Wood.

"The horse has maintained his weight extremely well, his energy level is good," Pletcher said. "Now we have to get lucky and have a smooth ship and hopefully a smooth trip."

Despite his Fountain of Youth victory, Eskendereya enters the weekend needing some more graded stakes earnings to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, which is limited to 20 starters based on money earned in graded stakes races. A fourth-place finish in what is shaping up to be a seven-horse field should get the job done.

"We've always known we were going to have one more prep," Pletcher said. "You'd have to assume he'd need to run at least third in it to have enough graded earnings. If he's not third or better, my thinking is something's not right and you wouldn't be going on to Churchill anyway."