05/02/2010 11:00PM

Lookin At Lucky looks set to show his best

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Barbara D. Livingston
Lookin At Lucky (above), with exercise rider Dana Barnes up, trains at Churchill Downs last week. Lookin At Lucky was installed as the 3-1 morning-line favorite for the Derby.

NEW YORK - A week ago, I was pretty sure that Eskendereya was going to win the 136th Kentucky Derby and that only two things could stop him: poor racing luck or a new peak performance by the one other colt in the field who still seemed capable of reaching Eskendereya's rarified level of quality. Now that an unlucky injury has knocked Eskendereya out of the race, I feel compelled to pick that other colt, despite my reluctance to take a favorite in what looks like one of the most closely matched and competitive Derby fields ever assembled.

Lookin At Lucky gets my vote, but not so much for his field-topping accomplishments to date - his $1.4 million in earnings, his six victories, or his three Grade 1 stakes triumphs. That record alone would make him a deserving favorite, but perhaps one to take a shot against if you think he's an overachiever who has already reached his peak. What I like most about him, however, is that I think he is capable of even more than he has already shown.

I don't think we've seen the best of Lookin At Lucky yet for three reasons: bad trips that have compromised him in three of his last four starts; making seven of his eight career starts on synthetic tracks, where mild paces and bunched-up finishes often camouflage the superiority of consistent winners; and a very deliberate plan to bring him up to this Derby with plenty in the tank for the demanding classic run of three races in five weeks.

Lookin At Lucky's lone dirt start was a victory in the Rebel Stakes March 13 in his 3-year-old debut, an effort that received a Beyer Speed Figure of 98 in a year where no one in the Derby field has exceeded a 100. That was his best figure, and there is every reason to think he can better it, perhaps significantly. The Rebel came off a three-month layoff, and Lookin At Lucky was stopped cold on the backstretch before regathering himself to wear down the leaders.

That performance convinced trainer Bob Baffert that Lookin At Lucky had improved from 2 to 3 and could handle dirt, and rather than give him a demanding final dirt prep, he took him home to Santa Anita and trained him very lightly for the Santa Anita Derby, virtually announcing he was neither asking for nor expecting a top effort. Any intentions became moot when Lookin At Lucky was stopped even worse than he was at Oaklawn, plummeting from fourth to eighth after being shut off at the rail on the stretch turn before recovering mildly to finish third. Everyone is focusing on whether he would have caught Sidney's Candy without the trouble, but that's almost beside the point if the whole idea was to give him an easy maintenance race as a bridge to the main event.

The Kentucky Derby figures to have an entirely different pace dynamic from the Santa Anita one, with plenty of early and stalking speed to ensure quick and contested fractions that may well work to the stretch-runners' advantage. That's why I'm taking a respectful shot against Sidney's Candy, who may be surrounded by other pace-pressers rather than loose on the lead this time. Instead, I will try to get some pricier horses into the frame underneath Lookin At Lucky.

I hold out some hope for Awesome Act, who, like the favorite, made a strong 3-year-old debut (winning the Gotham) and then ran a distant third in his final prep (the Wood) with legitimate excuses - he threw a shoe at the gate and was fighting his rider almost every step thereafter. The filly Devil May Care is just as fast as anyone in the field, has plenty of upside, and will get the distance.

As for plausible bombs, you might want to consider Super Saver, who keeps improving, showed newfound tractability last time out, and might be set for his best effort third time back, and even Homeboykris, a forgotten Champagne winner whose trainer may be the best in the business at working miracles off long layoffs.

So let's call it Lookin At Lucky, Awesome Act, Devil May Care, and Homeboykris in that order. It's an unlikely year to pick a favorite on top, but Lookin At Lucky may already be the best of this bunch and there's a very good chance that he's poised to be even better on Saturday.