Pletcher aiming to end oh-fer in Derby 

Todd Pletcher is 0-for-24 on the first Saturday in May. He'd like nothing more than to end that streak at this year's Kentucky Derby.

"I don't know if I get more tired of, 'You know, he's definitely going to win the Derby, we don't know when' or the 0-for-24" the trainer said. "Everything has to fall into place. You've got to get lucky with the weather and the trip and so many other factors that you can't control."

Pletcher has five probable starters and possibly a record-setting sixth for this year's race, on May 1.

And of them, his biggest star, is also the likely favorite in an expected full field of 20 horses who will race 1 1-4 miles to wear the garland of red roses at Churchill Downs.

Eskendereya.

Pletcher pronounces it Es-ken-der-AE-ah, but even he admits, "I'm not 100 percent sure what the right way is."

It won't matter if the big, muscular chestnut colt crosses the line first. Kentucky Derby winner will do.

"I wish I had him," said Rick Dutrow, who trained 2008 Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. "He is far and away the horse to beat."

Last year, under an expert rail-hugging ride by Calvin Borel, Mine That Bird came flying home in the mud to earn a stunning victory at 50-1 odds. The win payout of $103.20 was the second-largest in Derby history.

Eskendereya could be one of the shortest-priced favorites in recent years.

The 3-year-old scored blowout victories in the Fountain of Youth and the Wood Memorial, romping home by a combined 18¼ lengths under John Velazquez. He's run four times on dirt and never lost.

"I've never had one that has had two preps like that, that looks like he's dying to go a mile and a quarter," Pletcher said. "There's always been that reservation about the distance, but never with one that's put together a couple of prep races like he has."

Eskendereya is owned by Ahmed Zayat, who filed for bankruptcy protection in February to keep his racing operation afloat. He's facing a bank lawsuit alleging his stable defaulted on $34 million in loans. Zayat bred last year's Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile.

The rest of Todd's Squad is made up of Louisiana Derby winner Mission Impazible, Arkansas Derby runner-up Super Saver, Discreetly Mine and Rule. He could have a record sixth starter in filly Devil May Care, who could run against the boys in the Derby instead of the Kentucky Oaks the day before.

In 2007, Pletcher saddled the filly Rags to Riches, who won the Belmont Stakes by beating Horse of the Year Curlin.

The record for starters in one Derby is five, shared by Pletcher (2007) and Hall of Famers Nick Zito (2005) and D. Wayne Lukas (1996). Only Lukas came through when Grindstone won in '96.

"It's a great achievement," Lukas said he told Pletcher, his former protege, "but don't get beat."

Lukas, a four-time Derby winner, will saddle Dublin, third in the Arkansas Derby. The 74-year-old Hall of Famer was duly impressed with Eskendereya's 9¾-length win in the Wood and 8½-length romp in the Fountain of Youth.

"The only thing is he's beaten the same horses both times," Lukas said. "You beat up on the same horses, it loses a little bit of credibility. The next step (in the Derby), when he makes that move and he will, there'll be some company.

"It's a humbling, educational race."

Like Eskendereya, Lookin At Lucky has separated himself from the horde of Derby contenders despite finishing a troubled third as the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby.

The colt trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert is atop the graded-stakes earnings list with $1.48 million. Last year's juvenile champion proved by winning the Rebel at Oaklawn Park that transitioning from California's synthetic surfaces to dirt won't be an issue.

"He's just getting stronger and stronger. He's a really happy horse right now," said Baffert, who has another probable starter in Southwest Stakes winner Conveyance.

Zito will try to win his third Derby with Florida Derby winner Ice Box. He also trains Wood Memorial runner-up Jackson Bend, whose earnings of $230,000 won't be enough to make the field without defections.

Other trainers with two possible starters include California-based John Sadler and Mike Marker. Sadler has Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney's Candy and upset Arkansas Derby winner Line of David. Marker has Stately Victor, surprise winner of the Blue Grass, and Dean's Kitten.

If more than the maximum 20 horses are entered, as expected, the field will be decided by earnings in graded-stakes races.

"It's a very deep field this year," Baffert said. "A lot of horses. There's going to be a lot of speed, a lot of pace."

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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