Sports

Eskendereya out of Kentucky Derby

Originally, Todd Pletcher figured his best-case scenario this week would involve him walking into the Churchill Downs press center on Saturday evening, sitting before the Kentucky Derby signs and talking about one of the most talented horses ever to grace his barn.

Instead of that scenario playing out on Derby Day, Pletcher was living it Sunday morning.

And instead of discussing the end of his Derby frustration, the four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer found himself explaining yet another heartbreaking episode for his barn concerning the first Saturday in May.

Pletcher's Grade I-winning Eskendereya, the horse considered by many to be the likely favorite for Saturday's 136th running of the Kentucky Derby, was declared out of the 11/4-mile race Sunday morning due to swelling in his left front leg, according to his trainer.

Pletcher said he noticed Eskendereya had some fluid in the leg Saturday, which was part of the reason he decided to push back the colt's final pre-Derby workout to Sunday.

When Eskendereya failed to come onto the track with the rest of Pletcher's contingent Sunday morning, it became clear something was amiss.

"Basically his left leg is filling from the ankle up to the knee," said Pletcher, whose 0-for-24 record in the Kentucky Derby has been a popular topic in recent days. "We looked at it, worked on it overnight, and we haven't seen an improvement. We were hoping for a miracle overnight and we didn't get it.

"He's too special of a horse to take any chances with. I spoke with (owner) Ahmed Zayat this morning, and we decided to stop here."

Pletcher said it was premature to speculate on the exact nature of the injury or whether it could be career-ending.

"It could be soft tissue, but right now there is so much (fluid) in there it would be hard to identify it," Pletcher said. "The whole leg is kind of filling up. We're going to do some diagnostics later in the week when some of the filling goes out of his leg."

This marks the second straight year in which the likely Derby favorite will not make it into the starting gate. In 2009, morning-line pick I Want Revenge — who like Eskendereya won the Wood Memorial in his final Kentucky Derby prep — was scratched from the race when fluid was discovered in his ankle.

"It's an owner and trainer's worst nightmare," said three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, whose Lookin at Lucky probably will assume the role of race favorite. "When I heard this morning (about Eskendereya), it made my stomach in knots. That's why I don't get too excited, because something like that can happen."

Eskendereya was widely considered the best Derby contender Pletcher had ever brought to the race.

After opening his season with a solid allowance victory, Eskendereya won the Grade II Fountain of Youth by 81/2 lengths and then topped that effort with a victory in the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 3 by 93/4 lengths.

"He's without a doubt the best horse we've ever brought to this stage," said Pletcher, who still could have as many as six starters in the Derby on Saturday. "We've been fortunate to have some really good horses over the years, but I don't think we've had one at this stage of his development that is this good.

"I think his last two races were as good as any 3-year-old has ever run. The thing that is so disappointing is I know for sure a mile and a quarter was in his range. It's the first time I felt like we had gotten here with a horse that could maybe withstand the (Triple Crown) series."

Although Pletcher's angst has been well documented, Eskendereya's injury might be the toughest blow yet for his owner.

Zayat, who campaigned last year's Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year after Fifth Third Bank filed a lawsuit claiming he had defaulted on $34 million in loans.

"Professionally, the toughest call I've ever had to make to an owner was this morning," said Pletcher.

Earlier this month, it was reported that Zayat Stables had agreed to sell 100 percent of Eskendereya by the end of the year under a bankruptcy reorganization plan.

While other parties, including wine mogul Jess Jackson, had expressed interest in buying the colt, Pletcher claimed such negotiations did not fall apart due to veterinary issues.

"We did have some people come to look at the horse, but no veterinarian ever came to examine him," he said. "My understanding is the negotiations never got to the point where the horse was vetted."

With Eskendereya now out of the Derby picture, Pletcher said there is an increased chance Grade I-winning filly Devil May Care, who had been under consideration for both the Oaks and the Derby, will be in the starting gate Saturday.

Jockey John Velazquez has been the regular rider for Devil May Care and Eskendereya but, with the latter now sidelined, the key issue of who would guide the filly in the biggest race of her life is taken care of.

"The biggest impact would potentially be with the filly," Pletcher said. "Obviously this opens up John Velazquez, which was one of our concerns for her. I would say it swings the pendulum toward her running" in the Derby.

Pletcher and owner John Greathouse said Saturday they probably would cross-enter Devil May Care in the Oaks and Derby and let the post-position draws serve as a determining factor.

"I'm not afraid of running in either race," Greathouse said.

Pletcher already has four horses — Rule, Super Saver, Mission Impazible and Discreetly Mine — that are likely for the Derby and is giving some consideration to running Interactif, although that one is being termed doubtful.

Eskendereya's departure will clear the way for another horse to make it into the Derby field.

Homeboykris now moves up to 20th on the graded stakes earnings list while Wood Memorial runner-up Jackson Bend is in the 21st spot. If Interactif or Devil May Care does not start in the Derby, Jackson Bend would be in, giving trainer Nick Zito a second starter with Florida Derby winner Ice Box.

"He's ready. I hope he gets in," Zito said of Jackson Bend. "If (Eskendereya) is out and he's the favorite and the last two races (Jackson Bend) was second to the favorite, why shouldn't he get in the Derby?"

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