OZONE PARK, N.Y. -- As much as jockey John Velazquez was looking behind him aboard Eskendereya in the stretch of Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, no one could fault him if he spent part of the final furlong looking ahead to the first Saturday in May.
Eskendereya remained undefeated on dirt and likely stamped himself as the favorite for the May 1 Kentucky Derby with a 9¾-length blowout victory over Jackson Bend in Saturday's Grade 1 Wood Memorial. That result came six weeks after Eskendereya beat Jackson Bend by 8½ lengths in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. Awesome Act, the Gotham winner, finished third and was followed by Schoolyard Dreams, Carnivore and Most Happy Fella.
Velazquez said Eskendereya was more impressive in the Wood than in the Fountain of Youth, which had been the "wow" performance in a Derby prep until the Wood.
After stalking Most Happy Fella and Jackson Bend from third through pedestrian fractions of 24.32 seconds for the quarter, 49.21 for the half and 1:13.54 for six furlongs, Eskendereya took the lead at the five-sixteenths pole and drew away from the field under his own power. He ran his final three furlongs in 36.43 seconds, while covering the 1⅛ miles in 1:49.97. He returned $3 as the 1-2 favorite.
Velazquez said the Wood was more impressive than the Fountain of Youth "because he allowed me to get him back the way I wanted to."
"Down in Florida he was on the muscle the whole first part of the race," Velazquez said. "Today, even in a slow pace, he settled really well and went to a gallop down the backstretch."
Eskendereya's trainer, Todd Pletcher, appears well-armed to make a run at his first Kentucky Derby victory. He has run in nine Derbies with 24 starters.
"I don't think he could have been any more professional," Pletcher said.
Pletcher was very happy that Velazquez didn't have to hit Eskendereya at any point in the race.
"The thing that Johnny did today was he took pretty good care of him from the eighth pole to the wire," said Pletcher, who trains Eskendereya for Ahmed Zayat. "There was more there than what we saw even as impressive as that was. Johnny was basically looking around, just easing him up through the lane, and he just kept on gobbling up ground as he was doing it."
Eskendereya wore front bandages for the first time as a precaution. Pletcher said one of his horses earlier on the card burned his heels in the race, so he put front bandages on all his stakes horses Saturday, including Nite Light and Munnings, who both lost.
Pletcher said Eskendereya was scheduled to be flown back to the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida on Sunday. He will train there until shipping to Louisville on April 20. Pletcher also has Mission Impazible, Discreetly Mine and Rule likely to run in the Derby, with Aikenite, Interactif and Super Saver still having prep races to run.
By getting second by a head over Awesome Act, Jackson Bend earned enough money to get into the Kentucky Derby if his connections choose to run. Trainer Nick Zito said Jackson Bend would be shipped to Louisville and a decision about running in the Kentucky Derby would be made closer to the race.
Zito and Jackson Bend owner Robert La Penta will already be represented in the Kentucky Derby with Florida Derby winner Ice Box.
Awesome Act, who won the Gotham in his first start on dirt, was compromised by losing a shoe at the start of the Wood as well as the slow pace, which took away from his strong late kick. Still, his connections will press on to the Kentucky Derby.
"It was a great performance by the winner, but for my horse the pace of the race was wrong," trainer Jeremy Noseda said. "He lost a front shoe coming out of the gate, which wouldn't be ideal. Take nothing away from the winner, but for my horse to run his best race, that wasn't the type of [pace] that I need. We'll move forward onto Kentucky. You'd be surprised if we didn't get pace in Kentucky, and well see how we get on from there."
A crowd of 8,553 attended the Wood, up from 7,209 last year. The all-stakes pick four, which comprised Eightyfiveinafifty ($3.20), Goldsville ($5.10), Eskendereya ($3) and Warrior's Reward ($9.10), returned $95.