LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Todd Pletcher sank into the chair and wearily turned toward the cameras.The Eclipse Award-winning trainer has grown accustomed to disappointment at the Kentucky Derby — where he’s winless in 24 starts — but never quite like this.
Pletcher pulled likely favorite Eskendereya out of the Derby on Sunday due to swelling in the 3-year-old chestnut colt’s left front leg.
Pletcher noticed the inflammation after Eskendereya’s gallop over a sloppy track on Saturday. The swelling grew worse overnight, and Pletcher sent owner Ahmed Zayat a text at 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning expressing his concerns.
Two hours later, the horse Pletcher called the best he ever brought to the Derby was out of the Run for the Roses.
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Pletcher said Zayat “took it better than I would have.”
“He says the horse comes first,” Pletcher said. “He loves Eskendereya. He’s not going to do anything to take any chances. ... It’s not a phone call I wanted to make.”
Eskendereya had been so dominant in winning the Wood Memorial and Fountain of Youth Stakes by a combined 18 1/4 lengths he would have easily been the morning line favorite when the expected 20-horse field is set Wednesday afternoon.
Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said he could have put the odds on Eskendereya as low as 9-5, an eye-poppingly low number in a race as wide-open as the Derby.
Then again, Eskendereya certainly looked deserving of the honor.
“You thought to yourself, ‘This is an exceptional horse’ and rightfully so,” said trainer Nick Zito, who finished a distant second with Jackson Bend in both prep races.
Pletcher couldn’t help but agree.
Normally reserved when talking about his horses, Pletcher acknowledged he thought he had something special in the muscular colt.
Pletcher could still send up to six horses to the post in the Derby, but none boast Eskendereya’s impressive credentials. He is unbeaten in four starts on dirt and just appeared to be blossoming this spring after ending his 2-year-old campaign with a disappointing ninth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita last November.
He grew up over the winter, winning an allowance race at Gulfstream Park in January then serving notice that he arrived with an 8 1⁄2-length win in the Fountain of Youth. He backed it up with a dazzling victory in the Wood, where he broke away from the field at the top of the stretch in a 93⁄4-length romp with no urging from jockey John Velazquez.
“I think his last two races were as good as any 3-year-old has ever run,” Pletcher said.
Only three weeks after looking unbeatable in the Wood, Eskendereya’s racing future could be in jeopardy.
While Pletcher said it’s too early to tell the severity of the injury, when asked if the situation was career-threatening, he simply answered “I hope not.”
With Eskendereya out, Lookin At Lucky is likely to become the favorite.
Last year’s juvenile champion has won six times in eight career starts, but is coming off a third-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby.
Lookin At Lucky trainer Bob Baffert thought “something was up” when he didn’t see Eskendereya on the track Sunday morning. He called the horse “a star” last week and lamented missing the opportunity to run against him.
“It’s so hard to find horses like that,” said Baffert, a three-time Derby winner.