Trainer Todd Pletcher talks about the challenges of the Triple Crown schedule. (Childs Walker/Baltimore Sun)
Trainer Bob Baffert will enter Saturday's 141st running of the Kentucky Derby with the top two favorites in the morning line, another milestone in one of the most decorated careers in thoroughbred racing.
Baffert's remarkable duo — the effortlessly swift 5-2 favorite American Pharoah and undefeated 3-1 second choice Dortmund — will start in the No. 18 and No. 8 posts, respectively, as determined by Wednesday evening's post-position draw.
"I'm ecstatic," said American Pharoah's owner, Ahmed Zayat, despite the fact only one horse has won from the No. 18 post. "You can do anything you want [from there]. You can watch. You can sit. I just wanted an outside post."
Baffert's horses will be challenged by an unusually deep and gifted field.
"I cannot remember a Derby going in that I thought was as tough as this one is," said handicapper Mike Battaglia, who has set the morning line at Churchill Downs since 1974.
Baffert is the first to say American Pharoah and Dortmund will face an exceptional field, with a half dozen or more contenders talented enough to beat them. "We have the horses that are capable," he said. "But Todd Pletcher has the horses that are capable. Kiaran McLaughlin has the horse. There are a lot of horses in this race that are capable of winning it."
The top choice to beat Baffert's duo is the Pletcher-trained Carpe Diem, a horse with a stride so gorgeous he drew a $1.6-million sale price as an untested 2-year-old.
The 8-1 third choice drew a difficult No. 2 post, but Pletcher said he wouldn't despair. "I don't think you can look at it that way," he said. "The horse is a good gate horse. He broke his maiden from the No. 1 post. So we'll come out and try to establish some position like we would from any post."
Baffert ranks among Carpe Diem's chief admirers, saying he's certain Pletcher has yet to unsheathe the colt's full potential.
"I wouldn't trade places with anyone," said Elliott Walden, CEO of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Carpe Diem with Stonestreet Stables. "He's magnificent."
He noted Carpe Diem has raced on four different tracks, shipped across the country and never faltered. The only remaining question is how he stacks up against horses seemingly as talented as he.
"It's just a question of whether he's good enough," Walden said. "I think he's going to run hard. He's shown the talent to deserve being one of the horses that have a big chance. … But this is the Final Four. This is where you get to put them all together and see what happens."
Carpe Diem hasn't run as fast as American Pharoah or Dortmund to date, but his handlers and jockey John Velazquez have said that's fine because they didn't want him peaking too early.
"Todd Pletcher has been raving about him all spring," said NBC analyst Randy Moss. "I believe he feels this is the best horse he's had at this point, going into Louisville."
Walden wasn't terribly worried about the draw, saying he'd take any spot other than No. 1 or No. 20. "He doesn't need a [particular] scenario," Walden said of Carpe Diem. "He can adapt, which is a good quality to have in a 20-horse field."
Pletcher generally arrives with more Derby entries than any other trainer and this year is no different, with four of his horses expected in the race. Materiality is Pletcher's other top contender after a stirring victory in the Florida Derby.
The colt, starting from the No. 3 post, is a 12-1 co-fourth choice in the morning line despite the fact he'd be the first horse since 1882 to win the Derby after not racing as a 2-year-old. Some observers wonder if Materiality peaked at the Florida Derby, where he held off fellow Kentucky Derby hopeful Upstart on a deep, physically demanding surface. But Pletcher seemed impressed with the way Materiality bounced back in workouts.
Firing Line, starting from the No. 10 post as the 12-1 co-fourth choice, won his last race, the Sunland Derby, by a commanding 14 lengths. But he's actually better known for two narrow losses to Dortmund. There's little question he can compete with Baffert's stars, because he already has. He's also ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who has won the Derby three times.
In a field full of fast horses, it might behoove Frosted, a 15-1 sixth choice in the morning line, to be the chief counterpuncher. After a difficult run in his penultimate prep race, Frosted established himself as a strong Derby contender by charging from well off the lead to win the April 4 Wood Memorial. He'll start from the No. 15 post.
If American Pharoah, Carpe Diem and Dortmund wear themselves out fighting for position near the lead, Frosted could be perfectly positioned to pounce down the stretch.
"I think he could really benefit from running as a stylistic counterpoint," Moss said.
Frosted's trainer, McLaughlin, agreed despite his respect for the rest of the talented field. "I think we have a great race shape for us," he said. "We'll be back mid-pack or further, and that's a plus."
McLaughlin dug deep in his bag of tricks to figure out what to do with Frosted after the promising colt faltered in the Feb. 21 Fountain of Youth Stakes, finishing fourth. McLaughlin switched riders, from Irad Ortiz Jr. to Joel Rosario, tweaked the colt's schedule to run in New York rather than Florida and even ordered a minor operation on Frosted's soft palette.
Something worked, because Frosted's performance at the Wood Memorial was widely regarded as one of the best of the Derby prep season.
Baffert doesn't even like to speak of the draw before it happens. In 2010, he arrived with the favorite, Lookin at Lucky, only to pull the dreaded No. 1 post and finish sixth. He felt better after Wednesday's draw, saying "it could have been worse."
Both American Pharoah and Dortmund prefer to run near the lead, so clean breaks could be key to their chances. Jockey Victor Espinoza will be the man tasked with putting American Pharoah in the right position, and he sounded none too concerned about the draw, especially after receiving an outside post.
"I don't think it matters much, the post position," Espinoza said. "He's just an amazing horse."