04/05/2010 12:00AM

Latecomers to party welcome


If the Kentucky Derby were a nine-furlong race at Aqueduct on the first Saturday in April, Eskendereya already would have a blanket of roses. But it is not.

That is why there will be almost 20 horses combined running in two more nine-furlong Derby prep races at Oaklawn Park and Keeneland on Saturday.

No matter how strong and imposing Eskendereya appears after his two dominating graded stakes wins, one in Florida and one in New York, he still has to replicate that form to win the 136th running of the world's most famous race.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in Eskendereya, having played him as a prominent exacta win key in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager at juicy odds - odds he never will see on Derby Day. Yet, any reading of this year's 3-year-olds suggests there are a large number of promising horses out there, including juvenile champion Looking At Lucky - who certainly has been unlucky, given the circumstances that have led to his two defeats in eight career starts.

There also is last week's Santa Anita Derby winner, Sidney's Candy, who has won all three of his starts this year with a display of Grade 1 speed mixed in with an above-average finishing punch, a deadly combination to ignore.

Eskendereya's trainer, Todd Pletcher, also has six other 3-year-olds who may be in the Kentucky Derby field. These include Mission Impazible, winner of the $750,000 Louisiana Derby on March 27, and the graded stakes performers Rule, Super Saver, Interactif, Discreetly Mine, and Aikenite. While Pletcher trains Rule and Super Saver for WinStar Farm, that outfit also is likely to start two other promising 3-year-olds - Endorsement, recent winner of the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby, trained by Shannon Ritter, and American Lion, winner of last Saturday's $500,000 Illinois Derby, trained by Eoin Harty.

To underestimate the potential of so many developing young horses is to ignore Derby history. Just ask Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby-winning trainer who brought Point Given to the 2001 Kentucky Derby with impeccable credentials only to see that colt fail to finish in the top three. Ask Jeff Mullins, who brought 2009 Wood Memorial winner I Want Revenge to Louisville as the probable Derby favorite only to scratch him on the morning of the race with a career-threatening injury.

Last year's Derby victory by Mine That Bird at 50-1 also serves as a singular reminder that Derby winners are not necessarily tipped off by their prep-race performances. Fact is, Derby winners may show something worthy of support in a final prep, but the blanket of roses usually goes to the horse who reaches career form on the first Saturday in May.

Think back to some of these Derby winners:

* Unbridled, who was a moderate third in the 1990 Blue Grass Stakes before training brilliantly for Carl Nafzger during Derby Week.

* Sea Hero, who was unimpressive during the '93 prep race season, but suddenly began to work forwardly for Hall of Famer Mack Miller during the final few weeks.

* Go for Gin, second in the 1994 Fountain of Youth Stakes and Wood Memorial who was destined to get a big boost for his front-running talent on a wet Churchill Downs racing surface.

* Thunder Gulch, a sharp Florida Derby winner who rebounded to that form on Derby Day after finishing out of the money in the '95 Blue Grass stakes.

* Real Quiet, who lost the '98 Santa Anita Derby, but signaled improving form during his morning works at Churchill Downs.

* Funny Cide, unable to handle a healthy Empire Maker in the 2003 Wood, yet turned the tables when Empire Maker was forced to lose training time because of a nagging hoof injury.

* Giacomo, who only hinted at his best closing kick with in-the-money finishes in Santa Anita prep stakes, but benefitted from a pace meltdown in the 2005 Kentucky Derby.

* Street Sense, the 2-year-old champion of 2006 who ran relatively well but lost the '07 Blue Grass Stakes to longshot Dominican, then moved decisively forward to win the Kentucky Derby three weeks later in another Hall of Fame training job by Nafzger.

Nafzger's approach to his two Kentucky Derby victories 16 years apart deserves scrutiny by horseplayers and horse trainers, given the way he twice used the Blue Grass Stakes as a pure prep race for horses of substantial quality.

Pletcher, who has made a habit of winning rich prep stakes through his meteoric career, finally might have the perfect ticket to the Derby winner's circle with the talented Eskendereya. But, there are no guarantees, given that Pletcher has lost with all 24 of his prior Derby starters. Baffert, on the other hand, knows the way home, and so does Pletcher's mentor D. Wayne Lukas, who may be in the 2010 Derby with Dublin, who will run Saturday in the Arkansas Derby.

Here are profiles of 10 Derby prospects scheduled to compete this weekend, with my thoughts on what they must do to move on to Louisville.

In the $1 million Arkansas Derby:

* Noble's Promise, trained by Ken McPeek, was narrowly defeated by Lookin At Lucky in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel stakes on March 13. He will need a smooth finish and good gallop-out to remain on schedule.

* Dublin, trained by Lukas, was an encouraging second in the Southwest, but finished a flat third in the Rebel and needs to show that he can at least beat Noble's Promise without emptying the tank.

* Super Saver, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club stakes last fall and a modest third in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 13, needs to take a major step forward to be given any chance against a gateload of speed horses in this year's Derby.

* New Madrid, second to Endorsement in a maiden race and a subsequent maiden race winner, probably has to run like Endorsement to show he belongs at this level.

* Uh Oh Bango, with nearly enough graded stakes earnings to qualify, needs at least a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby to get into the top 20.

All the other prospective starters, including A Student and Line of David, have no Derby credentials.

In the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on the Polytrack at Keeneland:

Virtually every horse in the field needs a win or a second to qualify for a Derby starting berth. Thus, each must run strongly while still leaving something in reserve if he is going to have any chance to defeat the likes of Eskendereya and Lookin At Lucky, or Sidney's Candy and whoever comes out of the Arkansas Derby with good Derby credentials.

* Odysseus, the late-developing and very game winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, must continue his steady improvement for trainer Tom Albertrani.

* Pleasant Prince, who closed in tandem with Ice Box to just miss winning the Florida Derby, needs a repeat performance to show that he is legit.

* Interactif, a proven graded stakes winner on the grass, must replicate the strong late move he showed in the San Felipe Stakes on Pro Ride at Santa Anita Park.

* Paddy O'Prado, another turf pro, must convert that form to the Polytrack. But even if both of the turf pros do just that, doubts will linger about their ability to handle the dirt at Churchill Downs.

* Aikenite, who has maintained respectable form since last summer, needs to take a major leap forward. But then again, that was exactly the view many held about Mine That Bird, the Canadian 2-year-old champion of 2008 who lost two races at Sunland before he blew past the entire Derby field in the final three-eighths of a mile.

Also at Oaklawn this week, undefeated Zenyatta looms a heavy favorite to win her 16th straight in the $500,000 Apple Blossom stakes on Friday, the day before the Arkansas Derby. Even in the absence of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, a large crowd is expected.

* Steve Davidowitz will be at Oaklawn on Thursday at 11 a.m. in front of the track's gift shop on the grandstand floor to sign copies of his substantially revised and updated "Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century."