by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

The last week before the Derby is usually an uneventful one for Derby lists. With no more prep races to be run, the field is generally set and fluctuation is minimal. But this year, the week of Derby has been anything but boring, mostly thanks to the barn of Todd Pletcher. Favorite Eskendereya was pulled from the trail Sunday morning after a good amount filling was found. Rule was deemed not ready and sidelined. And Devil May Care has been doing the Derby hokey pokey, putting one foot in the Oaks and one foot back. With the Oaks draw completed, DMC will certainly be headed to Saturday's main event.

Since ballots were due either during or before certain defections from the trail, our final top twenty reflects only those who may still have a chance at entering the field. With so much fluctuation this week, there was not the consensus of previous weeks with each of our top seven all receiving at least one first place vote. Devil May Care had the biggest jump, moving from off our board to 8th place. Paddy O'Prado, Interactif, Discreetly Mine and Backtalk were all unranked last week but found a home in the bottom half of the Paulick Derby Index brought to you by Vinery LTD.

By Ray Paulick

It's been a dreary few days in the Bluegrass, with Kentucky Derby contenders putting in their final preparations over a hard, muddy racetrack that some of them obviously did not like. But with clear weather forecast for the next several days, the track will dry out by the weekend. The only question on conditions then is whether or not the predicted thunderstorms on Saturday (forecast as a 60% probability) will materialize and return the Churchill Downs racing surface to a sea of slop.

I bring that up because I am absolutely convinced track condition was a major factor in last year's Kentucky Derby result, with Calvin Borel and Mine That Bird skimming the rail on the sloppy track, sealed by maintenance crews in an effort to keep the moisture out. Mine That Bird drew off to win by 6 3/4 lengths, the Derby's biggest winning margin since Triple Crown winner Assault eight-length victory in 1946. No one in his right mind is comparing Mine That Bird with Assault. In fact, Mine That Bird hasn't won since the Kentucky Derby.

Let's hope for a fair and fast track that is without biases and provides a safe cushion for all runners.

It goes without saying the complexion of the Derby has changed in the last few days with the key defections of Eskendereya and Rule. Even without those two horses from his barn running for the roses, trainer Todd Pletcher will be represented by at least 20% of the 20-horse field (and fully one-fourth if Interactif is entered, giving him five chances to get off the 0-for-24 schneid). He's had five horses in the gate on Derby day on one previous occasion, when his best finish was sixth. Nick Zito, with two in this year, started five in 2005, with his best finisher, favored Bellamy Road, winding up seventh. D. Wayne Lukas, who is trying to win his fifth Kentucky Derby with Dublin, had five starters in 1996, including the winner, Grindstone.

What's more impressive to me than one trainer having so many starters is one racing stable owning three of the contenders. WinStar Farm will have a very potent trio in Super Saver, American Lion, and Endorsement, each of them with a different trainer. Hats off to racing manager Elliott Walden. (Rule would have given WinStar a fourth starter, but he is now being pointed for the Preakness).

Other numbers to ponder. No fewer than 11 of the anticipated starters were offered or sold at the Keeneland September yearling sale. Taylor Made Sales Agency counts four of the prospective field (Lookin At Lucky, Devil May Care, Conveyenace, and Mission Impazible) among its graduates, and if Backtalk manages to draw into the race, it would be five. Those are impressive figures for both Keeneland and Taylor Made.

I may be in the minority, but I'm going to miss the post position draw format where trainers and owners chose their post positions. The system could have used some  tweaking (how about setting the order of selection based on points earned in Graded stakes?), but I thought it brought more attention to the draw than the old-fashioned pill-pull.

So, one day before the post positions are drawn, here is my final Top 10, with some significant changes from last week, based on the defections of Eskendereya and Rule and the final workouts that I've seen of the leading contenders.

1. Lookin At Lucky. Even if Eskendereya hadn't dropped out due to injury, that workout turned in Monday morning might have put the Bob Baffert-trained son of Smart Strike on top in my list. He absolutely glided over a racing surface that many horses struggled with in what was as good a final workout before the Derby as I've seen.  Baffert is as skilled as anyone at getting a horse ready for a peak performance, and Lookin At Lucky is quite a horse to begin with. With a good trip (and that hasn't him lately), Lookin At Lucky should win the 136th Kentucky Derby

2. Sidney's Candy. Post position will be an important factor as the son of Candy Ride needs to find a comfortable position just off the lead. He's been unchallenged on the lead through slow fractions in his only two-turn starts—victories in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby–but whether or not he can rate behind horses will be the key. John Sadler is overdue to win a big race outside of California.

3. Noble's Promise. Threw  this horse off my list last week, thinking he might not even make the Derby, but I have since come to believe the problems that arose after his troubled trip in the Arkansas Derby have had no impact on his training. His workout on Monday morning was the second best behind Lookin At Lucky, and he has been extremely competitive with last year's 2-year-old champion when they've gone head to head. My biggest concern is that pedigree, which does not suggest stamina.

4. Ice Box. I'm still very skeptical of the quality of the Florida Derby field this year, but Nick Zito seems confident in the Pulpit colt's ability and condition. He figures to get a great trip, and the only quest is whether he's good enough. I don't think he's the best horse in the field, but as we have seen on many occasions (including the Zito-trained Strike the Gold's 1991 victory), the best horse doesn't always win.

5. American Lion. My prediction is that history will show the California horses were the strongest group that came to Churchill Downs, and he could be competitive on his best day. The Tiznow colt is a good physical specimen, is by a sire that certainly could get the distance, and is in the hands of a very good horseman in Eoin Harty.

6. Awesome Act. It's going to be interesting to see how the Awesome Again colt settles into the race on Saturday. Some horses from Europe adapt easily to American dirt racing and others do not. He never appeared to settle that well in the Wood Memorial, but he had some excuses that day. Has trained well up over the Churchill strip.

7. Dublin. Son of Afleet Alex has slipped a few spots on my list because of his erratic behavior during the mornings but he does have ability.

8. Mission Impazible. Can't really rate the Louisiana Derby one of the strongest prep races of the season, but the Unbridled's Song colt was competitive against Conveyance and Dublin in the Southwest Stakes before that, going very wide in a race he probably benefited from, as it was his first time around two turns.

9. Endorsement. This would be quite a training accomplishment by Shannon Ritter to win the Kentucky Derby with a colt that was still a maiden until late February. He has trained so well since winning the Sunland Derby in New Mexico and has a pedigree strengthened for stamina with A.P. Indy on the bottom.

10. Stately Victor. I'm sure I'm not the only one still shaking my head over the huge turnaround in form when he dominated the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes after suffering through five off-the-board performances. Was that race a fluke, or is this son of Ghostzapper coming to hand at just the right time for trainer Mike Maker? We'll know early Saturday evening.

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