03/05/2010 12:00AM

Too early to think it's prime time

Bob Coglianese
Eskendereya wins the Fountain of Youth with a performance that has many touting him as a Kentucky Derby lock.

PHOENIX - That stampede you saw wasn't for some giveaway. It was the rush of handicappers and writers crashing their way headlong onto the Eskendereya bandwagon after that colt's monster Grade 2 Fountain of Youth win a couple of weekends ago.

Now I'm not dumb enough to sit here and tell you Eskendereya won't win the Derby, or that he doesn't belong atop the list of Derby protagonists. But we all need to take a breath, or switch to decaf.

The trail to the Derby is littered with horses who were huge in February, March, even April, but who couldn't be found come that first Saturday in May. Peaking in the months before the Derby may look good on a resume, but it may also mean that resume does not include a victory in the Kentucky Derby.

It's possible we haven't even seen the best of Eskendereya. He's a strapping animal with a fluid stride, a love for dirt, and a pedigree that boasts class and stamina. He has a style like that of Barbaro or Smarty Jones - tactical speed that allows him to be in the race and get first run on the closers, which keeps him out of trouble.

But many others have put on a dazzling display that had handicappers agog at their Derby prospects, only to be disappointed.

Steven Crist made such an observation in his Feb. 21 blog post, listing several recent Fountain of Youth winners who far exceeded Eskendereya's 106 Beyer Speed Figure but either didn't make the Derby or failed in it: Lil's Lad in 1998 (113 Beyer), Read the Footnotes in 2004 (113), and Quality Road last year (113).

Here are several others who created major early Derby buzz but were nowhere to be seen at the finish on the big day:

Pyro (2008): Remember him? I remember reading columns saying his wins in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby were among the most remarkable Derby prep wins ever. Seems kind of silly now. He ran eighth in Kentucky.

Circular Quay (2007): His huge rally to win the Louisiana Derby sent him up the charts like a Lady Gaga song. He didn't run badly at Churchill, finishing sixth, but he was no match for Street Sense, Hard Spun, or Curlin.

Lawyer Ron and Sinister Minister (2006): Lawyer Ron couldn't lose, if you listened to the raves about him after he swept the Risen Star and the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. Sinister Minister excited speed figure followers with his 116 Beyer in his 12 3/4-length Blue Grass win. They finished 12th and 16th behind a steadily peaking Barbaro in the Derby.

Bellamy Road (2005): His tour de force in the Grade 1 Wood, when he won by 17 1/2 lengths for a 120 Beyer, and his preceding 15 3/4-length allowance win led many to believe the Derby was over before the end of April. But, again, it was someone else who hadn't peaked early winning the Derby - Giacomo. Bellamy Road ran seventh, earning a 90 Beyer.

Pulpit (1997): Perhaps the poster child for being prematurely anointed - and Daily Racing Form was as guilty as any. After he won his maiden, DRF began a special segment called the "Pulpit Watch," monitoring his every move, every day, whether that meant a work or walking the shed row or just munching on some oats and sticking his head out of his stall. As you well know, he didn't win the Derby, finishing fourth.

The list goes on.

Eskendereya must be considered a top contender. But brilliance this far before the Derby does not always equate to brilliance in the Derby.