Mark Casse admits he was growing worried. The pills were being pulled at the annual Kentucky Derby draw. Post positions were filling up. The dreaded No. 1 hole remained open. And Classic Empire’s name had yet to be called.
“We were getting down to the last four or five numbers,” said Casse, trainer of the reigning juvenile champion, “and I was already thinking, ‘Nothing has been easy, so why should it change? He’s going to be the one.”
Classic Empire is the one all right, just not the one in post position No. 1. Instead, Lookin At Lee will be looking out from the inside hole in a 20-horse field while Classic Empire drew the distinction of morning-line favorite for Saturday’s 143rd Run for the Roses.
Classic Empire landed the No. 14 post position, after which Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia placed the Arkansas Derby winner at 4-1. Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming (post position No. 5) is co-second choice with McCraken (No. 15). Both are 5-1.
Though third in the Blue Grass Stakes last time out, McCraken is three-for-three at Churchill Downs, winning his debut on Oct. 2, taking the Street Sense on Oct. 30 and taking the Kentucky Jockey Club last November. After McCraken won the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs in February, a minor ankle problem caused trainer Ian Wilkes to wait for the Blue Grass, where most felt having a solid race was more important than where the horse finished.
“He’s done tremendous,” Wilkes said after the draw. “I cannot fault how he’s done since the Blue Grass. He’s really propelled himself forward. Now I’m leading a horse over there that’s ready.”
Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry is at 6-1 after drawing the No. 17 post in the 20-horse field. “I didn’t want to be stuck down on the inside. It just gets very tight,” said trainer Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom out of the 16th post position.
Patch is stuck on the outside. The one-eyed horse, second in the Louisiana Derby in his first stakes try, drew the No. 20 post for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Meanwhile, no Kentucky Derby horse has won from the No. 1 post position since Ferdinand in 1986. The last to hit the board was Risen Star, who finished third in 1988. Tough luck for Lookin At Lee at 20-1. Or is it?
“Four days ago he was No. 21 (in the points standings),” said trainer Steve Asmussen, meaning were it not for defections Lookin At Lee would not have qualified for the 20-horse field. “One is better than 21.”
Asmussen can afford to be philosophical. Though 15-1, his horse Hence has earned raves here with the way he has trained. The Calumet Farm homebred is coming off a March 25 victory in the Sunland Derby, which included eventual Blue Grass winner Irap.
“The timing has been very good for him,” Asmussen said Wednesday. “Winning the Sunland Derby and the competitiveness of the horses coming out of the race in subsequent races have put eyes on him. And eyes on him have shown what we’ve always known. He’s a tremendous talent and if used correctly, it may be our day.”
Will Saturday be a rainy day? Louisville weathermen are predicting a high of 60 degrees with a 50 percent chance of rain.
“I think rain would help me,” said Asmussen, who also trains Untrapped. “It sorts out the race, puts in another variable. I think I need the race to physically sort out for all of my horses to have as good a chance as possible.”
How might the rain affect the favorite?
“Classic Empire is the only horse (in the field) to win at Churchill Downs in the mud,” said Casse of last year’s Bashford Manor. “Bring it on.”
2017 KENTUCKY DERBY FIELD
Lookin At Lee
L and N Racing
Saeed bin Suroor
Fast and Accurate
Kendall E. Hansen
Ricardo Santana Jr.
Brooklyn Boyz Stables
State of Honor
Battle of Midway
WinStar Farms and Don Alberto Stable
J Boys Echo
Albaugh Family Stables
John C. Oxley
Brian Hernandez Jr.
Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Robert V. LaPenta
Irish War Cry
Isabelle de Tomaso
Jerry and Ann Moss
Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence
Jerry and Ann Moss
Al Shaqab Racing, WinStar Farm and China Horse Club
x-Royal Mo and Master Plan are “also eligible” horses who get into the Derby only if another horse scratches before 9 a.m. Friday. Royal Mo would get in first, then Master Plan if a second horse scratches.