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World of Derby difference in a day
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The complexion of the 136th Kentucky Derby this Saturday at Churchill Downs changed dramatically in the 24 hours ending Monday, going from a race seemingly dominated, at least parimutuelly, by Eskendereya, to a more wide-open race that now will include the filly Devil May Care.
Ground Zero for all the developments has been the barn of trainer Todd Pletcher, whose strength for this Derby, in both quality and quantity, has been compromised. Eskendereya was officially withdrawn on Sunday because of a swelling in his left front leg, and then on Monday, two more Pletcher-trained runners, Interactif and Rule, came out, owing to unsatisfactory workouts. That still leaves Pletcher with four horses in the Derby - Devil May Care, Discreetly Mine, Mission Impazible, and Super Saver - but his barn is still reeling over the loss of the acknowledged favorite.
"It's one of those things that will take a long time to get over," Pletcher said at his Churchill Downs barn on Monday morning. "No matter what happens Saturday, you'll always wonder, What if?"
If Eskendereya had run, Devil May Care likely would have gone in the Kentucky Oaks, exclusively for fillies, on Friday. But Eskendereya's defection freed jockey John Velazquez, who is the regular rider for Eskendereya, to get on Devil May Care. The availability of Velazquez was among the reasons John Greathouse, whose Glencrest Farm owns Devil May Care, decided to run in the Derby.
"I always said I wanted to get my rider or I won't run," Greathouse said. "I got what I want."
Because she is a filly racing against males, Devil May Care will carry five fewer pounds (121-126) than her rivals in the Derby. She will be seeking to become the fourth filly to win the Derby. The most recent was Winning Colors in 1988.
"She's an exceptional filly," Pletcher said. "We've always felt that way. August of last year at Saratoga, she worked as good as any 2-year-old we've ever had."
The last filly to race in the Derby was Eight Belles, who finished second in 2008 but then fractured both front legs after the race was over and was euthanized on the track. Pletcher called that incident an unfortunate accident, and said major victories last year against males by Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, and his own Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont, "showed it's no more taxing for these fillies to run against colts."
Entries for the Derby are to be taken Wednesday. Entries for the Oaks, to be run on Friday, were to be taken on Tuesday. Devil May Care could conceivably be entered in both races, but both Greathouse and Pletcher said they planned to enter only the Derby so as to not deprive another filly an opportunity to run in the Oaks.
The Oaks field is limited to 14 starters. The Derby field is capped at 20. Both races are expected to have more entries than the maximum allowed. In both cases, earnings in graded stakes races will determine the fields. The Derby will be drawn at noon on Wednesday. Churchill Downs has done away with the two-step post-position draft it had in recent years and will instead have a traditional blind draw.
With Devil May Care added to the field, and Eskendereya, Interactif, and Rule coming out, an aggregate two spots opened in the Derby field. Jackson Bend (Mike Smith the rider) and Backtalk (Miguel Mena), in that order, were next on the graded stakes earnings list, so they are in the Derby barring any unexpected, last-second maneuvers. Make Music for Me is now on the bubble, and his trainer, Alexis Barba, wants to run. If Make Music for Me does not get in, he will run here Friday in the American Turf, Barba said.
The defection of Eskendereya promoted Lookin At Lucky, last year's champion 2-year-old male, to the role of favorite on the morning line to be set by Mike Battaglia of Churchill Downs. Battaglia said Lookin At Lucky would be "right around 3-1." He had planned on making Eskendereya as low as 9-5.
Lookin At Lucky, trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, solidified his position as the favorite on Monday with a sharp five-furlong workout with exercise rider Dana Barnes aboard. He was timed by Daily Racing Form in 1:00.38 over a track rated muddy.
There is the possibility of an off track on Derby Day, too. Four straight days of showers through Monday were expected to clear out by midweek, but there is a chance of showers on Friday, and a 40-percent chance of showers, including scattered thunderstorms, on Saturday, with a predicted high temperature of 79 degrees.
Lookin At Lucky was one of five potential Derby starters to work on Monday. Line of David struggled through the final quarter-mile when working six furlongs in 1:14.98 for trainer John Sadler. American Lion cruised five furlongs in 1:02.69 for trainer Eoin Harty.
Works by Noble's Promise and Interactif helped determine their Derby status. Noble's Promise was given a thumbs-up by trainer Kenny McPeek after getting a clean bill of health following a half-mile workout that Churchill Downs clockers timed in 48.80 seconds. Noble's Promise came out of the Arkansas Derby earlier this month with a lung infection, but McPeek said that has cleared up. Willie Martinez has the Derby mount.
Interactif worked a half-mile in 47.53 seconds, but Pletcher was not awed with the way he worked and said Interactif would return to grass racing, over which he finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last fall.
"We'll focus on turf racing this summer," Pletcher said.
Rule could be in action sooner. Bill Casner, whose WinStar Farm owns Rule, said the Preakness Stakes on May 15 was a possibility for Rule. Disappointing recent workouts here, plus the fact WinStar has three other horses - American Lion, Endorsement, and Super Saver - in the Derby, caused Casner and Pletcher to keep Rule out of the Derby.
"You've got to listen to them," said Casner, who owns WinStar in partnership with Kenny Troutt.
As for Eskendereya, he will remain at Pletcher's barn for the time being. The extent of the injury to his left front leg, what treatment will be taken, and the chances of his returning are all to be determined.
"Maybe by Wednesday enough of the inflammation will be out of there so we can do the proper diagnostics," Pletcher said.
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