LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Todd Pletcher thought he had more than a Kentucky Derby winner in Eskendereya.
The normally reserved Eclipse Award-winning trainer admits he believed the talented 3-year-old colt could become the first Triple Crown winner in more than 30 years.
"It's the first time I felt like we've got nearly the horse that could maybe withstand the three-race series," Pletcher said.
He'll never know.
Pletcher pulled Eskendereya (pronounced Es-ken-der-AE-ah) out of the Derby on Sunday due to swelling in his left front leg.
And while Pletcher could still send as many as six horses to the starting gate for next week's Derby as he tries to end his 0-for-24 streak in the Run for the Roses, he knows he lost something special.
"We've been fortunate to have some really, really good horses over the years," he said. "I don't think we ever had one at this stage of his development that's this good. ... He's special."
So special Pletcher and owner Ahmed Zayat figured it wasn't worth the risk once Pletcher noticed inflammation in the leg after Eskendereya's gallop over a sloppy track on Saturday.
The swelling grew worse overnight, and Pletcher sent Zayat a text at 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning expressing his concerns.
Two hours later, Eskendereya's Derby was over.
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 9 3/4-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.
Zayat would know. He has long coveted the Derby and came close last year when Pioneerof the Nile was runner-up to long shot Mine That Bird.
Zayat did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press, but the injury is a crippling blow to his struggling racing operation.
He filed for bankruptcy protection in February to keep Zayat Stables afloat after Fifth Third Bank filed a lawsuit that alleges his stable defaulted on $34 million in loans.
Eskendereya was the key to helping Zayat Stables get out of debt. Zayat 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. There was no value placed on the horse, though it easily would run in the millions with a Derby win.
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. Talks never advanced to the point where a veterinarian was called in to examine the colt.
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 on race day 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 front legs in the Wood Memorial, where he beat Jackson Bend by nearly 10 lengths.
"I think his Wood performance speaks for itself," he said.
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'll still 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 Interactif and filly Devil May Care. Velazquez, who was scheduled to ride Eskendereya, could get the mount if Devil May Care enters the race.
It's not a bad backup plan. Yet one Pletcher wishes he could have avoided.
"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."