LOUISVILLE — Twenty-four years after he was at the end of the lead shank of the Kentucky Derby favorite, Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey has found himself coming full circle.
After weeks of saying he would likely anoint unbeaten Grade I Wood Memorial winner Verrazano the morning-line pick for the first Saturday in May, oddsmaker Mike Battaglia ultimately gave that designation to McGaughey's protege Orb when post positions for the 139th Kentucky Derby were drawn Wednesday.
Orb, winner of the Grade I Florida Derby and Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes this season, was deemed the tepid 7-to-2 morning-line favorite after drawing post No. 16 in the 20-horse field, a spot that figures to be an auspicious starting point for Phipps Stables and Stuart Janney's homebred.
Verrazano, who also landed an ideal post when he drew two spots inside Orb in the No. 14 slot, was made the 4-to-1 second choice with Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents the third choice at 5-to-1.
"It reminds me of (2007 Kentucky Derby with) Street Sense and Curlin," Battaglia said of his wavering on which horse would get his favoritism.
By his own admission, McGaughey was decidedly more on edge when he brought champion and race favorite Easy Goer to the Derby in 1989, only to watch his brilliant colt run second to fellow future Hall of Famer Sunday Silence.
Thanks to Orb — who will be just the second Derby starter his trainer has had since Easy Goer — the 2013 version of McGaughey is almost freakishly at ease, taking the fuss in stride as the prospect of saddling what would be his first Derby hero edges closer.
"Oh I'm happy. I'm happy with everything," McGaughey said. "I heard a little rumor that Mike (Battaglia) was a little confused about who (the favorite) was. I think it's because of the way (Orb) has done things here that he went on and made him the favorite.
"Where we stand now, we have a good post, the horse is doing well, we're the morning-line favorite. What more could I ask for on Wednesday afternoon?"
More than half of the post positions had been drawn without either Orb's or Verrazano's name being called, leading to some tense moments as the dreaded No. 1 post was still up for grabs.
That unfortunate inside starting point ended up going to Grade III Spiral Stakes winner Black Onyx. Both McGaughey and Todd Pletcher, trainer of Verrazano, meanwhile offered plenty of praise for where their colts ended up after their connections sweated it out.
"We'll just kind of hold our position and creep in a little bit around the first turn and (jockey Joel Rosario) can watch what is going on inside of him," McGaughey said. "He can judge what (jockey John Velazquez) will do on Verrazano."
Added Pletcher, who will saddle five starters in this year's classic, "We hadn't gotten a spot for Verrazano and with some tough posts — the one and the two — still out there, I was concerned. But then he drew the 14 and it was a sigh of relief.
"As far as Orb being the favorite over Verrazano, that's not an issue. He (Orb) deserves to be the favorite."
On paper, none of the major Derby contenders ended up hindered as a result of their starting position. Goldencents and his early speed are in the sweet spot in post No. 8 while Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary landed in post No. 3, something that shouldn't be much issue for his Hall of Fame, rail-skimming jockey Calvin Borel.
"I love it. (Jockey) Kevin (Krigger) doesn't have to sit in the gate; then he can pick his spot," said Goldencents' trainer Doug O'Neill, who won last year's Derby with I'll Have Another. "We're going to bring it back home."
Holy Bull Stakes winner Itsmyluckyday also got an ideal post in No. 12 while Gotham Stakes winner Vyjack will have to make his run from the outside post No. 20.
Vyjack is trained by Rudy Rodriguez, a former assistant to trainer Rick Dutrow. For those who like omens, Dutrow was the last to win the Kentucky Derby from post No. 20 when he saddled Big Brown to that win in 2008.
That Orb has gone from taking four tries to break his maiden to becoming the sophomore to beat is one McGaughey is still trying to digest. This time, at least, he's have fun doing it.
"I think I am more relaxed (than in 1989)," he said. "There was a lot of focus on (Easy Goer) and all this has come up with Orb pretty quickly. I haven't had to worry about it all winter. I've got to really enjoy it and let the horse kind of talk for us."
When: 6:24 p.m. Saturday
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: Horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.