Likely favorite Eskendereya is out of the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Todd Pletcher pulled the 3-year-old colt out of next weekend's race due swelling in his left front leg.
Eskendereya stamped himself as the horse to beat after romping to wins in the Fountain of Youth and the Wood Memorial by a combined 18¼ lengths.
He was scheduled to work at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning, but Pletcher opted to keep the muscular chestnut colt in the barn while sending his other Derby entries out on the track.
Pletcher said he detected something was “off” with the horse when he galloped on Saturday morning and later noticed swelling between the ankle and knee of the left front leg. It had worsened when Pletcher arrived at the barn Sunday morning and he sent owner Ahmed Zayat a text informing him of the problem.
“We were still kind of hoping for a miracle overnight and we didn't get it,” Pletcher said. “It's the worst of timing.”
Pletcher stressed that “the horse is not lame” and he's hoping the injury, which he likened to a sprained ankle in a human, isn't career-threatening. Eskendereya will undergo an examination when the swelling subsides, but Pletcher said he'll speak to Zayat before making any decision on what to do next.
“It's a tough one,” said Pletcher.
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.”
Zayat, who owned 2009 Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press.
The injury is another blow for Zayat Stables. Zayat filed for bankruptcy protection in February to keep his racing operation afloat. He's facing a lawsuit from Fifth Third Bank that alleges his stable defaulted on $34 million in loans. He filed a reorganization plan in New Jersey bankruptcy court earlier this month in which he agreed to sell Eskendereya by the end of the year.
Pletcher acknowledged Sunday that Jess Jackson, owner of Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, had expressed interest in buying Eskendereya this spring. IEAH Stables, which owned 2008 Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, also talked to Zayat about buying into the horse. Pletcher said talks never advanced to the point where a veterinarian was called in to examine the horse.
Eskendereya was considered Pletcher's best shot at ending his 0-for-24 mark in the Derby. The Eclipse Award winning trainer still has a handful of Derby horses, but believed Eskendereya had a shot at becoming the first Triple Crown winner in more than 30 years.
“I don't think we've ever had one at this stage of his development that was that good,” he said. “It's the first time I felt like we've gotten here with a horse that could withstand the three-race series.”
With Eskendereya out, Lookin At Lucky is likely to become the morning line favorite. Last year's 2-year-old 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's trainer, Bob Baffert, thought “something was up” when he didn't see Eskendereya on the track Sunday morning. He called Eskendereya “a star” last week.
“It's so hard to find horses like that,” said Baffert, a three-time Derby winner.
Trainer Nick Zito likened Eskendereya to Big Brown, who put together a dominating Derby prep campaign while coming out of Florida.
“You've got to have luck in this game though,” said Zito, who will saddle Ice Box and possibly Jackson Bend in the Derby.
Eskendereya is the second straight Wood Memorial winner to be pulled from the Derby. I Want Revenge was the morning line favorite in last year's Derby, but was scratched the day of the race due to a soft tissue injury.
Pletcher dismissed the notion that Eskendereya has been dealing with a leg issue for weeks. The horse wore wraps on both of his front legs while dominating the field in the Wood, where he beat Jackson Bend by nearly 10 lengths.
“I think his Wood performance speaks for itself,” he said.
Eskendereya's departure probably opens the door for filly Devil May Care — also trained by Pletcher — to enter the Derby. Pletcher said jockey John Velazquez, who was scheduled to ride Eskendereya, could get the mount if Devil May Care enters the race.
It also guarantees a spot in the field for Homeboykris, who is co-owned by Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre and is trained by Rick Dutrow Jr., who also saddled Big Brown.
The Derby field is limited to 20 horses, with preference given to those with the most graded stakes earnings if more than 20 are entered.
Eskendereya was tied for fifth in graded earnings with $600,000. Homeboykris is currently 21st with $250,000. Jackson Bend, who finished second to Eskendereya in both the Wood and the Fountain of Youth, is now on the bubble.
“If (Eskendereya) is out and he's the favorite, the last two races (Jackson Bend) was second to the favorite,” Zito said. “Why shouldn't he get in the Derby?”
Pletcher has been a fixture at the Derby for the last decade but hasn't been able to reach the winner's circle. He joked last week that he's getting tired of the “when will you win the Derby” questions.
He will have plenty of chances on Saturday, when he could set a record by saddling six horses. Mission Impazible, Super Saver, Rule and Discreetly Mine are considered likely for the Derby and could be joined by Devil May Care and Interactif, though Pletcher says he's not quite ready to make a decision on Interactif.
“It's one of those things, you've got to pick up and go on,” he said. “We're fortunate that we have some other opportunities and we'll try to make the most of those.”