BOZICH | Battaglia said it's easy to Justify the favorite in talented Kentucky Derby
The Churchill Downs oddsmaker shrugged at the criticism that Justify did not race at 2 and made Bob Baffert's colt the 3-to-1 favorite for Kentucky Derby 144 Saturday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The trainers of the 20 horses who will run in the 144th Kentucky Derby argue this is one of the best collections of 3-year-olds in years, that you can make an argument for 8 to 10 to win the race Saturday.
Could be. But Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said he could only make a case for one as the Derby favorite -- Justify, who drew the No. 7 slot in the main starting gate Tuesday.
"I had no doubt who the favorite was going to be," Battaglia said. "The favorite is going to be Justify. It’s just a matter of how short they’re going to make him."
Battaglia started the price at 3-to-1 in the morning line he shared at the track. Second choice at 5-to-1 is Mendelssohn, the winner of the UAE Derby in Dubai.
Although Justify has crackled to three easy wins this year, including a 3-length win over Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby, his critics say there is a major hole in his resume:
Justify did not race as a 2-year-old. The only horse that has won the Derby without racing at 2 was Apollo. That was 1882.
"That’s not a factor,” Battaglia said.
That’s also 126 years ago.
"That’s silly," Battaglia said. "That curse thing is silly. Lightly raced is the problem."
Battaglia said that Justify’s record as well as Baffert’s record of winning four Derbys will have bettors embracing Justify.
"Both performance and connections," Battaglia said. "You have to have both. Bob Baffert is as good as it gets when it comes to getting a horse ready for the Kentucky Derby. And this horse just has so much talent.
"Only one drawback and it’s a big drawback. In three races he’s never been bumped. You can be bumped."
How concerned was Baffert with the draw?
You decide. Baffert and his wife, Jill, arrived about 10 minutes after it began, five minutes after Justify was drawn.
Baffert did not see Justify on the board when he entered the room so he asked a group of onlookers if his colt had a post position.
Katie George of WDRB Sports quickly gave him the news -- seven.
"That’s a good spot," Baffert said. "We didn’t want to be in the one hole and we didn’t want to be 20. Seven is fine but he still has to break well.”
The seven spot has produced 6 winners in 88 Derbys since 1930. The last winner from seven was Street Sense in 2007.
The consensus from Baffert, Todd Pletcher, D. Wayne Lukas, Dale Romans and Chad Brown was that none of the top contenders were compromised by drawing a post position on the extreme inside or outside
Those spots went to Firenze Fire (one) and Combatant (20). The mile-and-a-quarter race is scheduled to start at 6:46 p.m. The winner will receive $1.432 million of the overall $2,912,000 purse.
Pletcher is scheduled to start four horses Saturday, including three of the top contenders — Audible (5), Magnum Moon (16) and Vino Rosso (18). His fourth starter — Noble Indy (19) — will join the last two in the auxiliary gate.
Initially, Pletcher was not thrilled by the news.
"Ideally, we wouldn’t have three horses in the auxiliary gate but that’s the way it unfolded and we’ll do the best we can with it,” Pletcher said
Then NBC analyst Donna Barton slid him a note that said this:
Four of the last seven Derby winners started in the auxiliary gate.
Pletcher shifted the narrative.
"So we’ll go with that angle," Pletcher said. "Four of the last seven winners came from the auxiliary gate and Always Dreaming (who won for Pletcher last year) was five. That's all we can do."
The four winners from the outside gate were Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (No. 15 in 2015); Orb (15 in 2013); I’ll Have Another (19 in 2012) and Animal Kingdom (No 16 in 2011).
Battaglia said that he wrestled with making the second choice before settling on Mendelssohn, who won the UAE Derby as well as the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Magnum Moon scored in the Arkansas Derby while fourth choice Audible won the Florida Derby and Bolt d’Oro was second in the Santa Anita Derby.
Mendelssohn is 5-1, Magnum Moon 6-1 and Audible and Bolt d’Oro 8-1.
"Mendelsohn looked so good in the UAE Derby but you never know about those horses coming over from Dubai," Battaglia said.
Good Magic and Vino Rosso are 12-to-1 while the remaining horses are all 20-to-1 or higher.
"You need to be a good horse to win it and you need to get a good trip no matter where you start," Pletcher said.
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