02/22/2010 12:00AM

Eskendereya looks like real deal

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NEW YORK - Eskendereya's sensational victory in Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park was "Quality Road-like," which is at once both a high compliment and a warning to temper one's enthusiasm.

Like Quality Road in last year's Fountain of Youth, Eskendereya dominated. And while Eskendereya didn't run quite as fast - the 106 Beyer Speed Figure he earned Saturday falls a bit short of the 113 Quality Road received last year - Eskendereya beat what seemed to be a stronger field and won by a bigger margin - 8 1/2 lengths, double Quality Road's margin in the 2009 Fountain of Youth.

That Eskendereya can be favorably compared to Quality Road at this stage of their careers strongly suggests that barring anything going terribly wrong, Eskendereya is going to be an important horse. Just two weeks before the Fountain of Youth, Quality Road was so brilliant winning the Donn Handicap that with no disrespect to Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta one would be hard pressed not to label Quality Road as the best horse in training in the U.S.

Of course, there is still a long way to go for Eskendereya between now and his goal of the Kentucky Derby. After winning last year's Fountain of Youth, Quality Road came back with a strong victory in the Florida Derby over the highly talented Dunkirk, a performance that would have had him vying for the favorite's role in the Kentucky Derby. But all of Quality Road's considerable talent couldn't stave off quarter crack issues, and he was forced to miss the Triple Crown races.

The good news is Eskendereya doesn't appear to have any physical issues. Also in his favor is a stouter pedigree than Quality Road's in the context of handling the Kentucky Derby's 10 furlongs. Eskendereya is by Giant's Causeway and out of a Seattle Slew mare; Quality Road is by Elusive Quality and out of a Strawberry Road mare. But even though Eskendereya's Fountain of Youth was by far the best two-turn performance by any member of his generation to date, Quality Road showed us that just making it to the Kentucky Derby can be almost as tough as winning it.

Some other impressions from the weekend:

* It's difficult if not downright impossible envisioning Buddy's Saint challenging Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth even if he had gotten a clean trip. But you can't hold Buddy's Saint's distant ninth against him, because he had a terrible trip under Jose Lezcano. He had all sorts of trouble on the rail going into the first turn, rushing up after missing his break into a hole that wasn't really there. You have to wonder if Buddy's Saint won't be getting a jockey change soon.

* Todd Pletcher, who trains Eskendereya (and who took over as Quality Road's trainer last summer), also trains Discreetly Mine, who won the big 3-year-old prep Saturday at Fair Grounds, the Risen Star Stakes. It is encouraging that Discreetly Mine earned his first stakes win in his first attempt around two turns. Then again, Discreetly Mine seemed fully extended despite setting a slower-than-anticipated pace. In truth, coming mere minutes after the Fountain of Youth, the Risen Star suffered by comparison.

* I wasn't crazy about Conveyance's victory last month in the San Rafael at Santa Anita. I thought he worked much harder than he should have as the prohibitive favorite and the lone speed to win that race. But Conveyance deserves credit for a better performance Saturday, prevailing after setting a strong early pace under pressure to win the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

That said, if I would want anyone going forward from the Southwest, it would be runner-up Dublin. In his first start in 3 1/2 months, Dublin missed his break, was rank early, seemed to run only in spurts, and was wide around the far turn. But he still finished well, and seemed beaten almost as much by the early finish line found in one-mile races at Oaklawn as by Conveyance.

* What's up with Gio Ponti? Last year's champion older male and turf male looked like he was going right on past Karelian in deep stretch of Saturday's Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup Stakes, only to switch gears and then lose the bob. This was reminiscent of what Gio Ponti did last fall in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic when he took the lead in deep stretch as the odds-on favorite, only to have the outsider Interpatation come back and win going away. At least in the Joe Hirsch, Gio Ponti had the 12-furlong distance and a bog-like course as excuses. Could the 3 1/2 month layoff really have been the excuse Saturday? After all, Gio Ponti was the 1-5 favorite.

* Courageous Cat was also making his first start since the Breeders' Cup Saturday in Gulfstream's Canadian Turf Stakes, and he also struggled. But at least he turned back a 26-1 shot to win the photo.

* And then you have Bob Black Jack. Layoff? Bob Black Jack ain't bothered by no stinkin' layoff. In his first start in 14 months, Bob Black Jack was much the best winning Saturday's San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita. Nice job.