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Pletcher's best shot gets final tuneup

Ever since he saddled his first five Kentucky Derby starters in 2000, Todd Pletcher has been Mr. Also-Ran on the first Saturday in May. Although he's won almost everything else, Pletcher is 0-for-24 in the Run for the Roses.

Four weeks from the 136th Kentucky Derby, the future Hall of Famer has it surrounded with a possible eight contenders. His best chance appears to be Eskendereya, the 4-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday's Grade I, 11⁄8-mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

The colt's owner, Ahmed Zayat, was born in Egypt, and an Eskendereya is a "flirty Alexandrian dance with a heavy veil," according to a glossary of Middle Eastern dances. Considering how Pletcher has been teased by the Run for the Roses, the name is appropriate.

The son of Giant's Causeway hasn't run since Feb. 20, when he cruised by 8¼ lengths in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. "Coming off a lifetime top, we thought perhaps having additional time off would be beneficial," Pletcher said.

That's why they skipped the Florida Derby for the Wood.

Eskendereya's only bad race came in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, when he finished ninth after a bad trip. Pletcher considers it a throw-out and has no doubts about Eskendereya's quality.

"He has so much potential," Pletcher said. "Sometimes you get precocious horses that peak as 2-year-olds, but physically I've seen such improvement in him. The one thing I've always been confident about is I don't see a mile and a quarter or even a mile and a half being a problem for him. He has a lot of natural stamina. So he's got all the right tools for the classic distances."

Among Eskendereya's five rivals are Schoolyard Dreams, Awesome Act and Jackson Bend.

The Derby also has tormented Bob Baffert, but his pain lasted for only a year. After missing by a nose with Cavonnier as a first-timer in 1996, his Silver Charm and Real Quiet won the next two years and War Emblem scored in 2002. The platinum-haired California icon downplays Pletcher's Derby oh-fer.

"You can take a lot of shots at it, but you have to have the right horse," Baffert said. "This year, he's got the right horse with Eskendereya."

Baffert believes he also has one in 2009 2-year-old champion Lookin At Lucky, the 4-5 favorite over nine rivals in Saturday's Grade I Santa Anita Derby. His only defeat in seven starts was by a head in the Juvenile.

Looking ahead to May 1 at Churchill Downs, Baffert said: "I wouldn't trade places with (Pletcher). I have confidence in my horse."

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