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Kentucky Derby Post Position Draw Sets Todd Pletcher’s Three Horses as Favorites

The longtime trainer arrives with the strongest hand, including two favorites and an undefeated contender.

The Kentucky Derby post-position draw is a strangely repressed prelude to a completely unrestrained weekend. Connections to the 20 thoroughbreds entered in the race sat at circular tables in the Aristides Lounge at Churchill Downs on Monday, with dozens of media members and curiosity seekers hovering around the periphery. In a nearly silent atmosphere, post positions are drawn at random and betting odds are assigned.

It’s a city council meeting that primes the pump for the biggest bacchanal in sports, with 150,000 people set to go wild Saturday.

If the draw is an exercise in restraint, it’s fitting that the pulseless Todd Pletcher arrives with the strongest hand. The trainer whose emotions are submerged at all times will command favored Forte (3–1 morning line odds), second choice Tapit Trice (5–1) and undefeated but raw Kingsbarns (12–1).

Pletcher is an annual Triple Crown presence, usually with a large number of contenders, which makes his two Derby wins (Super Saver in 2010, Always Dreaming in ’17) seem like an underachievement. But this is only the second time he’s saddled the favorite for the race.

Pletcher’s horse Forte is the current favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

Pletcher’s horse Forte is the current favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

“Any time you have high hopes and high expectations comes added pressure and added intensity,” Pletcher said last week. “Feel like we’ve been able to have everything go really smoothly, and so you just kind of hope that that continues to be the case and, hopefully, you get lucky with the weather.”

The fickle Kentucky spring weather will be a mystery until Saturday. If the track is dry and fast, Forte is a deserving favorite with five straight stakes victories coming into this race. But he’s also vulnerable. This is not a naturally fast horse, and most recent winners have enough early speed to be forwardly placed in the early stages of the race.

Forte is characteristically prone to coming from off the pace to win in the stretch—if there is not a sufficiently stout pace to wear down the early leaders, he might have too much ground to make up or traffic to navigate in the closing stretch. There is a reason why “pace makes the race” is a well-worn saying at the track.

In other words, Forte isn’t going to dictate the terms of the way this Derby is run. He will be somewhat at the mercy of others to do that for him, and there is some question about whether there is enough speed in the race to set it up for the closers. At the very least, it seems highly unlikely that we will have a dangerously fast early pace that destroys the race and produces a fluke winner like Rich Strike last year, who rolled in late to capture the roses at 80–1 odds.

Todd Pletcher is an annual Triple Crown presence, but this year, his horse is the favorite.

Todd Pletcher is an annual Triple Crown presence, but this year, his horse is the favorite.

If Forte doesn’t fire, there could be half a dozen other horses poised to seize the day. Some of the major Derby prep races featured dramatic stretch runs, with two horses dueling in the Blue Grass Stakes and three in the Santa Anita Derby. Throw in a talented Japanese import in Derma Sotogake (10–1), a colt coming off a 70-day layoff in Confidence Game (20–1) and the grammatical insult that is Two Phil’s (12–1), and there are plenty of contenders.

“It’s still wide open,” said trainer Brad Cox, who has four starters in this race in Angel of Empire (8–1), Verifying (15–1). Jace’s Road (15–1) and Hit Show (30–1). “[The preps] were all really close races, for the most part. It’s a competitive group of horses. I think from top to bottom it’s a pretty talented group where anybody can jump up and win it.”

A potential x-factor when it comes to pace setting is Reincarnate, a speedy former Bob Baffert trainee who has been moved to the barn of Tim Yakteen while the six-time Derby winner serves the second year of a two-year Derby suspension. While Yakteen is the trainer of record, Baffert might still be orchestrating Reincarnate’s progress to this race—and the colt’s sizzling, 46 2/5–second, four-furlong workout last week seems like the stuff of a speedball who will be going for the lead.

“There’s rarely a total lack of pace,” says Bill Mott, trainer of Rocket Can and winner of the 2019 Derby with Country House after the interference DQ of Maximum Security. “Somebody will go.”

Who goes, and how fast, in the first half of the 1 1/4–mile race will set the stage for how the Kentucky Derby finishes. If things break right, Todd Pletcher has multiple strong chances to be there at the end.