Bob Baffert had no chance to fret over the Kentucky Derby draw.
By the time the Hall of Fame trainer managed to get into Churchill Downs, the process was halfway done and Justify had landed in the No. 7 post on Tuesday.
“We didn’t want the 1-hole, that’s for sure,” the four-time Derby winner said. “I was relieved when I saw him in seven.”
Justify was made the early 3-to-1 favourite for the Derby, with Europe-based Mendelssohn the second choice in a full field of 20 horses.
Six horses have won from the No. 7 post, most recently Street Sense in 2007.
“The only reason I’m the favourite is because I beat Bolt d’Oro and he was the horse to beat,” said Baffert, referring to Justify’s three-length win over his rival in the Santa Anita Derby last month.
Justify is one of two horses in Saturday’s two-kilometre race who didn’t race at the age of 2. The other is 6-to-1 third choice Magnum Moon. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby after not racing as a 2-year-old.
“I don’t buy into the Apollo Curse or whatever at all, mainly because Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher have got the horses,” four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “Todd’s going to have his [horse] ready, and Baffert is going to have his.”
Justify is 3-0 in his brief career, winning by a combined 19 lengths. Magnum Moon is 4-0, winning the Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes in his past two starts.
“It’s one of the toughest Derbies I’ve ever seen,” Baffert said. “All the important horses got good draws.”
More history is working against Mendelssohn. A horse coming from Europe has never won America’s biggest race. Trained by Irishman Aidan O’Brien, UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn is the 5-to-1 second choice. He drew the No. 14 post.
O’Brien wasn’t at the draw and Mendelssohn won’t hit the Churchill Downs dirt strip until Wednesday after clearing quarantine. The colt arrived Monday from Ireland.
Pletcher has a leading four horses in the field: Magnum Moon, 8-to-1 Audible, 12-to-1 Vino Rosso and 30-to-1 Noble Indy. He surpassed Lukas, his mentor, this year as the trainer with the most starters in Derby history with 52.
Pletcher won last year with Always Dreaming.
The main starting gate holds 14 horses and a six-stall auxiliary gate is attached. Horses are loaded into the gate two at a time, beginning with posts one and 11, which spend the most time waiting for the start.
“Having three of the four horses in the auxiliary gate wasn’t what we were hoping for,” Pletcher said. “Sometimes you can work out good trips from out there. We’ve got four terrific riders.”
The co-fourth choices are 8 to 1: Audible and Bolt d’Oro.
Bolt d’Oro has won four of six career starts for trainer and owner Mick Ruis. The colt drew the No. 11 post, which means he will be waiting the longest for the gate to open. Firenze Fire drew the dreaded No. 1 post and also will be standing the longest.
“We’re good,” Ruis said. “Bolt is so well-minded that he doesn’t work himself up.”
Baffert’s other entry, 30-to-1 shot Solomini, drew the No. 17 post, which has never produced a Derby winner.
Lukas, the 82-year-old Hall of Famer, has his 49th Derby starter in Bravazo. The colt is one of five 50-to-1 shots in the field. In that group is Lone Sailor, owned by Gayle Benson, the widow of the New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson.
Bravazo is owned by Calumet Farm, which has won a leading eight Derbies but none since 1968 when Calumet’s Forward Pass was declared the winner after Dancer’s Image was disqualified because of a positive drug test.
Seven horses were listed at 30 to 1 by Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia: Free Drop Billy, Promises Fulfilled, Flameaway, My Boy Jack, Enticed, Solomini and Noble Indy.
The Desormeaux brothers have teamed with My Boy Jack. Kent Desormeaux, a three-time Derby winner, will ride, while Keith Desormeaux does the training.
The field is limited to the top 20 horses based on points earned in designated prep races.
Twenty-one horses were entered. The 21st horse on the points list is Blended Citizen, who would need a defection by early Friday morning to get into the 144th edition of the race.
If all 20 horses start, the total purse would be US$2,192,000. The winner earns US$1,432,000. Post time is 6:46 p.m. EDT.