Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby: What to expect when the race begins

LOUISVILLE — It can't quite be termed a fall from grace because the subject in question has yet to do a thing wrong.

But in most any other year, being the undefeated winner of the Grade I Wood Memorial would be enough — enough to dominate the pre-race buzz and, at the very least, enough to secure favoritism heading into the first Saturday in May.

Verrazano has trained without a hitch since arriving on the Churchill Downs backstretch in advance of his expected start in the 139th Kentucky Derby, but the unblemished colt is surrounded by a fistful of classmates who are doing a good job of touting their own talents.

The colt is the headline player of the five-horse arsenal that trainer Todd Pletcher plans to saddle in the Derby, but the pendulum of hype has swung decidedly in the direction of Grade I Florida Derby winner Orb, among others, in recent days.

Orb was designated the 7-2 morning-line favorite by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, and public support for Orb was bolstered by his sublime 4-furlong workout in 47.80 seconds on Monday. And of Pletcher's five, Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary is regarded as the one who has consistently gotten over the Churchill track in the most impressive fashion.

Even Normandy Invasion, who ran second to Verrazano in the Wood Memorial, has seemingly garnered more chatter in recent days, boasting 8-1 odds in early betting as of noon Friday compared to 11-1 on Verrazano.

"It doesn't matter. I think it's an advantage (not to be favored) — more pressure on the favorite," Pletcher said of Verrazano. "I think Orb will be the favorite (at post time). He won three in a row. I think some people are perceiving his last prep to be stronger than the Wood.

"It don't really matter to me who the favorite is. It has no bearing to me."

Rightly, Pletcher and his brethren are most concerned with the result. That, and a weather forecast that could lead to a wet track.

With rain predicted for Saturday, those contenders with experience running on an off track are grinning. Gotham Stakes winner and Wood Memorial third-place finisher Vyjack won by 53/4 lengths over a sloppy Aqueduct track in December, and Florida Derby runner-up Itsmyluckyday also has mud form, winning over a sloppy Calder surface last August.

Orb and Verrazano are among those who have never run over a wet track, but one Derby entrant who has demonstrated that he doesn't like such conditions is Rebel Stakes winner Will Take Charge.

The D. Wayne Lukas trainee was sixth in the Grade III Southwest Stakes over a sloppy Oaklawn surface, and he seemed to be spinning his wheels throughout.

"There's not much you can do," said Chad Brown, trainer of Normandy Invasion. "I generally don't train on wet tracks. I'm also of the opinion that they are either going to like the wet track or they're not. I don't know that you can teach them to like it."

How controlled the pace will be early on has also been a keen topic. With the new points system effectively eliminating sprinters from the mix, some wonder whether the early fractions will come in more tepid than has previously been the Derby norm.

Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents is almost certain to be on or right off the lead; Sam F. Davis winner Falling Sky also could be there.

"Every time you think there is no pace, there ends up being big pace. When you think there is going to be big pace, there is no pace," said Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, trainer of Orb. "I think one thing with the No. 16 post is we can anticipate that if it looks like two or three of them are wanting to go, which I anticipate will happen, I anticipate maybe more pace than what we were thinking about."

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