04/26/2010 12:00AM

Eskendereya out of Derby

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Barbara D. Livingston
Eskendereya's final Kentucky Derby work had been postponed for two days before the announcement.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Eskendereya, the strong favorite for Saturday's 136th Kentucky Derby, was withdrawn from the race Sunday morning because of swelling in his left front leg, trainer Todd Pletcher said.

Pletcher said "hopefully, it's not career-threatening," but said it was too early to tell.

"We'll do the diagnostics when we get the swelling out of his leg," Pletcher said at a news conference at Churchill Downs.

The defection of Eskendereya makes more possible the chance of the filly Devil May Care joining Pletcher's Derby brigade. John Velazquez, the regular rider of Eskendereya, is also the regular rider of Devil May Care.

"It swings the pendulum more toward her running," said Pletcher, who also has the colts Discreetly Mine, Interactif, Mission Impazible, Rule, and Super Saver as potential Derby starters. Interactif's status will be determined after a workout scheduled for Monday. Devil May Care's other option is the Kentucky Oaks, for fillies, on Friday.

Keeping a close eye on these Derby developments are the connections of horses currently on the bubble in terms of graded stakes earnings, most notably Jackson Bend, who finished second to Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Wood Memorial. If all the Pletcher horses, including Devil May Care, do run, that would keep Jackson Bend outside the top 20 in terms of graded stakes earnings. But if at least one of them comes out - or any other horse currently in the top 20 - Jackson Bend is in.

A maximum of 20 horses can run in the Derby. If more than 20 enter the race Wednesday, graded stakes earnings are the criteria to determine the field.

Following Jackson Bend in terms of graded earnings are Backtalk, Make Music For Me, and Pleasant Prince.

Pletcher said Eskenderaya, owned by Ahmed Zayat, was "not lame, but slightly off."

"I haven't felt like his last couple of gallops were up to par," Pletcher said Sunday. "I was concerned yesterday. I couldn't say anything because I couldn't reach Mr. Zayat, because yesterday was the Sabbath for him.

"We were hoping for a miracle overnight," Pletcher said. "Professionally, the toughest call I've ever had to make to an owner was the one this morning. But Mr. Zayat took it well. He's a pretty emotional guy. He said the horse comes first. He loves the horse. It was not a phone call I wanted to make."

Pletcher said Eskendereya's condition worsened overnight despite therapeutic work, prompting him to pull out of the Derby six days before the race.

"The left leg is filled from the ankle up to the knee," Pletcher said. "We've got to get the edema out of there to get a proper diagnosis. He's not uncomfortable. But when we took him out of his stall this morning and jogged him on the asphalt, he was what for me I would call 'slightly off.' "

Pletcher said Eskendereya would be treated with anti-inflammatories, along with ice and poultice, to try to reduce the swelling.

"It could be soft tissue, but until we reduce the edema, it's hard to identify," Pletcher said.

Pletcher was clearly deflated over the news regarding Eskendereya. Pletcher has raced in the Derby nine times, with 24 runners, and has yet to win but has finished second twice.

"Without a doubt, this is the best horse we've ever brought to this stage," Pletcher said. "His last two races were as good as any 3-year-old has ever run.

"I know for sure a mile and a quarter" - the Derby distance - "is within his range, a mile and a half" - the distance of the Belmont - "is within his range, and he's the kind of horse who physically could hold his weight and bounce back in two weeks," a requirement to run in the Preakness following the Derby.

"It's a tough one," Pletcher said. "You've got to pick up and go on. Fortunately, we've still got some other opportunities."