Todd Pletcher has 20 horses on the nomination list for the Kentucky Derby, the most of any trainer. But it's his 3-year-old chestnut colt Eskendereya, out of Zayat Stables, who shows the most promise. And that colt was the reason why he was at Aqueduct in Queens, N.Y. on Saturday, April 3.
Six horses were in the $750,000 Wood Memorial field, the 9th race of the afternoon, but Eskendereya (pronounced "S-ken-dRAY-uh") was the horse the majority of the crowd of 8,553 and the throng of media came to see. The Wood was the last major prep race before the qualifying horses headed to Churchill Downs for the May 1 date in the Kentucky Derby. Eskendereya left no doubt that he was, in fact, the favorite for the Derby, and potentially the Triple Crown.
Pletcher had a horse in the 8th race, the $200,000 Excelsior Stake. He spent the minutes leading up to post time in the shadows of the No. 3 paddock stall, among the horse grooms and excrement. He was wearing a pressed grey pinstripe suit with a bluish-grey tie that complimented his blue eyes. His gray-white hair was manicured, his face clean-shaven and his hands were clasped behind his back. His gaze was focused on his horse, Nite Light; his appearance was all business.
Pletcher watched the race from Box B18, with his wife and three kids around him. He stood throughout the race, occasionally peering through his large set of binoculars for a closer look at his horse and jockey, John Velazquez. The horse came in second, and there was 23 minutes to post for the Wood.
As the six horses for the Wood made their way from the backstretch to the paddock, anyone and everyone associated with one of the horses poured into the area as well. The men wore suits and the women wore colorful dresses. Most of the women also wore goosebumps and had the shivers, since the forecasted warm weather was replaced with a brisk ocean breeze.
The railing overlooking the paddock was lined three-deep with spectators trying to get a glimpse of the contending horses, like they were leaning in to see Alex Rodriguez in the on-deck circle. One group even had an "ESKENDEREYA" sign, the letters colored turquoise and yellow - the color scheme of the Zayat Stables silks. Pletcher again watched from his position in the No. 3 stall, among the grooms and the excrement, with his hands clasped behind his back.
He did emerge in time to greet Velazquez, as the horses circled the paddock. He helped boost the jockey onto the back of the colt, raising him by the left boot. The trumpet tune played, calling the horses to post, and the six contenders emerged onto the track.
Minutes later, when the gates sprang open to start the race, Eskendereya broke with the pack, settling into third around the clubhouse turn. At this point, Pletcher was nowhere to be found. He wasn't trackside or in the box with his family. Instead, he was in a tiny office beside the scales in the paddock area watching the Wood Memorial on a 17-inch television. He sat in a chair with his elbows on his knees, the race program rolled up and held tight in his hands, and his eyes on the TV set. He looked like a kid in a trance watching Saturday morning cartoons.
If there was any speculation whether Eskendereya would live up the hype that has surrounded his Derby chase, it was squashed by the time he completed the final turn. After sitting comfortably in third throughout the backstretch, he made his move in the final turn. From the outside position, the powerful colt made spectators out of Most Happy Fella and Jackson Bend, as he moved to the lead by the top of the homestretch. He went from head-to-head with two horses to his tremendous 9 3/4-length cushion in the final 1/8 mile. Velazquez never had to use his whip: "I was just a passenger in that one," he would say later.
It wasn't until he saw Eskendereya pass the wire victoriously, that Pletcher rose from his seat and emerged from the small room. He adjusted his tie, then his coat and ascended the stairs to the track. He was greeted with handshakes and pats on the back. Pletcher didn't crack his first smile until his feet were buried in the track dirt, while shaking another hand.
In post-race interviews, Pletcher admitted that the performance of the colt surpassed even his own expectations, and that he'd be anxious to see the outcome of a similar Stake race going on across the country at Santa Anita, the Santa Anita Derby. Lookin At Lucky, the other serious contender for the Kentucky Derby, was set to run. Pletcher would save those concerns for a later time.
Nearly a half hour after Eskendereya's win, the Santa Anita Derby ran. Lookin At Lucky would be pinched in the race and wind up third.
Let the Kentucky Derby countdown begin. My money is on Eskendereya.