LOUISVILLE — As Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito held court inside Churchill Downs' Secretariat Lounge on Wednesday, owner Mike Repole was answering a barrage of questions of his own just a few feet away.
Both men radiated their share of nervous energy in the wake of the post-position draw for the 137th Kentucky Derby, but for decidedly different reasons.
Zito can officially say he has the morning-line favorite for the first leg of the Triple Crown in his barn as his Florida Derby-winning protégé Dialed In was deemed the 4-1 choice by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia after drawing post No. 8.
His starting position on Saturday puts Dialed In in an ideal spot to drop back and make his patented late run. That the son of Mineshaft has gone from maiden winner to leader of his division in just more than six months is seen by his connections as a fitting — if not daunting — mantle to carry considering what he has achieved.
In four career starts, Dialed In racked up two graded stakes wins against one defeat, with his most spectacular effort being his last-to-first rally in the Grade I Florida Derby on April 3.
"They gave us the favorite's role, that's all right. I'm very flattered by it, very humbled," Zito said. "It could have gone either way, they could have put Uncle Mo at 4-1. But (Dialed In) is deserving; anything he gets he deserves."
Added owner Robert LaPenta, "It's a mixed blessing (being the favorite). We're happy but we're a little worried."
Though Repole's champion colt Uncle Mo drew post No. 18 and was made the 9-2 second choice in the 20-horse field, the colt's status for Saturday remains up in the air as concerns about his health continue to dominate backstretch conversation.
Ever since Uncle Mo was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal tract infection following his third-place finish in the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 9, Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher have fielded daily questions about whether the son of Indian Charlie — once the overwhelming leader of the 3-year-old division — would run on the first Saturday in May.
Repole said Uncle Mo will be examined by Dr. Doug Byars and two other veterinarians Thursday, and how he acts in his planned gallops the next two days will go a long way to determining if he is in the starting gate.
"If you're a vet you're welcome to come by (Thursday)," Repole joked. "We'll know more then. Then probably Todd and I and the vets will talk and sleep on it, and Friday we'll see how he gallops.
"It's a tough decision, I wish someone else could make it other than me. But we'll make a decision that is right for the horse."
Pletcher said he and Repole won't race Uncle Mo in the Derby if he is "anything less than 100 percent." Because the colt's ailment is internal, getting an exact read on whether he is totally over the inflammation presents a challenge.
"It's so hard with an internal issue to know if a horse is 100 percent, and that's what's driving me nuts," Repole said. "If it was a physical thing, you could tell if he's 95-90 percent. Whether we go or not ... we're never going to know 100 percent if it was the right or wrong decision.
"You watch his appetite, you watch his attitude, and it's all progressing. But unless the horse says 'Dad my stomach is still aching me a bit,' you just don't know. It's such a tough position, and I lose sleep over it every night."
One thing that put both Repole and Pletcher in a better mood was the post position draw.
In addition to having Uncle Mo draw outside of most of the expected speed in the race, his stablemate Stay Thirsty — who is also owned by Repole — landed in the No. 4 spot, the same post Super Saver drew last year before giving Pletcher his first Derby victory.
"We're happy with both the draws. We were afraid of the No. 1, and we didn't want to be down there," Pletcher said. "Uncle Mo will be OK from the 18. He wants to get good stalking position, and he can do that.
"We had great luck (with the No. 4 hole) and we don't mind going back there again."
The biggest cheer during the draw came from the camp of Mucho Macho Man after the Risen Star Stakes winner drew post No. 13 and was installed as 12-1 in the morning line.
"I got my heart transplant on Nov. 13 (2008) and I was born on Feb. 13, so I thought I'd be getting the 13," said Kathy Ritvo, trainer of Mucho Macho Man.
Nehro, runner-up in both the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby, was made the third choice in the morning line at 6-1 after drawing post No. 19, and Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch got the dreaded spot on the rail and was made 10-1 in the line along with Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude (post No. 15).
"I've always wanted to be No. 1, but not in the Kentucky Derby starting gate," said Jinks Fires, trainer of Archarcharch. "It's still the shortest way around, and at least I am not out next to the track kitchen."