LOUISVILLE – Bob Baffert shooed away the question like it was an overzealous patron getting a little too close to one of his brilliant monsters this week.
A notoriously suspicious sort, the Hall of Fame trainer bristled this past Monday when asked which post position he liked best for his prospective Kentucky Derby contenders, the memory of past unfortunate draws still taunting his brain.
“I don’t like talking about post positions because I don’t want to jinx myself,” he quipped. “I know what I like, I try and stay positive.”
Wednesday’s draw at Churchill Downs for the 141st Kentucky Derby marked what Baffert termed “the last stressful” moment before his duo of juvenile champion American Pharoah and unbeaten Dortmund fight one another and 18 others for history in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
The three-time Derby winner trainer came away feeling like he dodged a couple bullets as Zayat Stables’ American Pharoah landed in post No. 18 and Kaleem Shah’s Dortmund post No. 8 en route to being installed as the top two betting choices for the 10-furlong classic by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia.
American Pharoah was made the 5-to-2 favorite on Battaglia’s morning line as he attempts to become the first horse since Gato Del Sol (1982) to win out of post No. 18 since the use of the starting gate in 1930.
Multiple Grade I winner Dortmund sits as the 3-to-1 morning line second choice with Blue Grass Stakes winner Carpe Diem the 8-to-1 third choice after landing in post No. 2.
The last trainer to saddle the top two betting choices in the Derby was Bobby Frankel with Empire Maker and Peace Rules, who ran second and third, in 2003.
“American Pharoah is out there a ways but it’s not a bad spot for him,” Baffert said. “He’s quick, he’s fast, he has a lot of speed, he can maneuver where he is. And Dortmund, he’s pretty fast himself so I’m sure if he breaks well he’ll be in a good spot.
“It’s nerve wracking, I’m just glad it’s over,” Baffert continued. “We have the holes and hopefully our names will be hanging up there in the winner’s spot.”
The most widely feared post is the No. 1 spot as it puts horses in position to break toward the rail and get squeezed. Baffert knows all about that, as his champion charge Lookin At Lucky landed in that post en route to finishing sixth as the Derby favorite in 2010.
With half the field drawn, the inside posts still loomed with neither American Pharoah’s nor Dortmund’s name called in the double-blind pill pull. Relief washed over owner Ahmed Zayat when the 18 hole was called for his reigning juvenile champion and Baffert exhaled deeper when the 17-plus hand Dortmund escaped being down inside.
“I’m elated, extremely happy,” said Zayat, who also owns fellow Derby entrants El Kabeir (post No. 7) and Mr. Z (post No. 17). “I wanted outside, the further out gives us more opportunity. I was freaking out (with the rail still in play), I was freaking out since the moment I sat down. But all my three horses drew fantastic.”
Added Baffert, “I just hate that No. 1 hole, they just need to get rid of it. You don’t like to get it because to me it’s dangerous, you’re looking right at the rail. We went through it with Lookin At Lucky.”
Both American Pharoah and Dortmund have done their running on or near the front end, something they have in common with several key Derby rivals. On paper, they could be fighting for the same piece of real estate in the front tier along with Carpe Diem, undefeated Grade I winner Materiality and Firing Line.
“I’m sure my jockey are going to ride their own race, I really can’t tell them what to do,” Baffert said. “They’re on fast horses so I don’t see any of them coming from way off the pace or anything like that.”
Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Louisiana Derby winner International Star will break from the No. 12 position while trainer Rick Violette Jr. tried to talk himself into a positive outlook after Grade II winner Upstart landed in the No. 19 position.
“I just have to convince my jockey (Jose Ortiz) that’s exactly the spot we wanted,” Violette said.
Trainer Todd Pletcher is set to saddle Carpe Diem, Materiality, Itsaknockout and Stanford in the classic, but saw his top two land right next to each other inside with Materiality in the No. 3 slot.
Pletcher acknowledged he would have preferred Carpe Diem and Materiality ended up further out but said their respective early speed could still put them in striking position.
“I mean, we weren’t looking to take back (with Carpe Diem) no matter what post we came out of,” Pletcher said. “So we’ll look to be in good position, exactly where that will be, I’m not sure.
“I don’t think anyone really knows the kind of trip they are going to get just because of the post they drew.”
Notes: Frammento and Tale of Verve were entered on the also-eligible list for the Derby meaning they could could draw into the field should any horses be scratched before Friday at 9 a.m. ET.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.