Kentucky Derby favorite Orb avoided the rail while drawing post Number 16 for Saturday's race at Churchill Downs.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Every time one more of the 20 post positions for the Kentucky Derby filled, trainer Shug McGaughey twirled the Kleenex in his right hand a little faster.
One, two, three positions came off the board. Then five. Half the field had been drawn when the Derby Draw show went to a commercial break. McGaughey had no idea where Orb, his talented colt, would start the 1 ¼-mile race on Saturday. But he knew he did not want Orb to start from spots one, two or three – and those positions were not yet filled.
"I could tell he starting to get tense," said Alison McGaughey, the trainer's wife. She sat with her husband in the front row at Churchill Downs as the draw unfolded.
"I kept telling him, ‘We're going to be fine. We're going to be fine.' I didn't tell him I was getting nervous, too."
Their central nervous systems crackled for 13 picks. Only seven spots in the 20-horse field were unfilled – 1, 2, 5, 6, 14, 15 and 16. The first two were making McGaughey perspire. The other fine would make him exhale. Decent odds for the race track, but still dangerous for the likely Derby favorite.
"I was hoping we would have drawn earlier so we could get up and leave," McGaughey said.
He punctuated that line with laughter. Consider it proof that everything turned out fine. Orb drew No. 16 – and track odds maker Mike Battaglia quickly made him the 7-to-2 morning line favorite Derby 139, which will be worth nearly $2.2 million when the gate opens at 6:24 p.m. Saturday. He will be ridden by Joel Rosario.
Unbeaten Verrazano is listed as the second choice (4-to-1), starting from No. 14. The third pick (5-to-1) is Goldencents. That colt is trained by Doug O'Neill, who won the race last year with I'll Have Another, and lists University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino as a minority owner.
"I was very pleased with the 16 and we'll take it from there," said McGaughey, whose colt has won his last four races, including the Florida Derby March 30.
"Orb drew well," O'Neill said.
Of course, the annual question at the draw remains the same: Is the drama real or manufactured for television?
"I don't think it matters," said retired jockey Ron Turcotte, who won the Triple Crown with Secretariat 40 years ago. "You need a horse that can run ."
Others disagree. McGaughey had admitted for several days before the race that he did not want Orb to start from spots 1, 2 or 20.
Here are some numbers to consider: Over the last 20 years, when the Derby field was typically full, the winner has started from 12 positions.
The sweet spot certainly seems to be just off the rail in posts three-through-eight. Those six positions have produced half the winners.
But before anybody starts to argue that a horse is compromised by starting in one of the five outside spots, note this: Post position 16, Orb's spot, has produced more winners – four – than another post in the last two decades.
Those numbers hold up well with a larger sample size. Post 10 has produced the best percentage (11.8) of all Derby winners, but No. 16 is second at 9.8. Animal Kingdom delivered from the 16 hole only two years ago. It also worked for Monarchos (2001), Charismatic (1999) and Thunder Gulch (1995).
"Probably everybody would say the one hole is the one you want to avoid," O'Neill said. "Even if you've got a good gate horse, you worry about your horse falling asleep a little in there (while they load the complete field).
"But we would have justified how one would have been a great hole if we would have got it. The eight hole is fine."
Odds are that they're all fine – if you have the right horse.