Justify, light on experience but apparently long on luck, drew a solid spot for the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), getting post 7 at the draw for the $2,192,000 Run for the Roses May 1 at Churchill Downs. Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia installed the Scat Daddy colt as the 3-1 morning-line favorite.
Justify, who races for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing, has only made three starts and carries the history of the "Apollo Curse" with him. Apollo, in 1882, was the last horse to win the Derby without racing at 2—but Justify has impressed in each outing. He comes to the Derby off a three-length score over the seasoned Bolt d'Oro in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Justify is trained by Bob Baffert, who is tied with D. Wayne Lukas with four Derby winners. Baffert has sent out 27 horses in the Derby, and also trains Zayat Stables' Solomini, who landed in post 17.
Baffert walked into the room just after Justify drew the seven.
"I walked in and looked at the board," he said. "I forgot which colors we were using. I said,'There's a WinStar. Is that Justify in seven?' I'll take that.
"I'm happy; everybody should be happy with their posts. I wanted to be in the middle or outside. We didn't want the one-hole, that's for sure."
The race is slated for 6:46 p.m. EDT and will be shown live on NBC.
International star Mendelssohn was tabbed as the 5-1 second choice after drawing post 14.
The most expensive sale yearling in 2016 when he went to M.V. Magnier for $3 million at the Keeneland September yearling sale, Mendelssohn has drawn the most buzz of any European-based runner since Arazi caused a frenzy on the Churchill backstretch in 1992. Sent off at 9-10 in the Derby following his scintillating run in the previous year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), Arazi ran eighth.
Mendelssohn, by Scat Daddy out of 2016 Kentucky Broodmare of the Year Leslie's Lady, won last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T) at Del Mar. Pointed toward a dirt run under the Twin Spires, he had his training somewhat compromised by cold weather in Europe this winter, but turned the racing world on its ear with his 18-length score at Meydan in the March 31 UAE Derby Sponsored by Saeed and Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2).
Mendelssohn arrived in the states April 30, landing in Indianapolis. He was vanned to Churchill Downs and is bedded down in the quarantine barn (Barn 17) on the backstretch. He is expected to take to the track May 3.
Trainer Todd Pletcher holds four aces for the Derby. He's 2-for-48 lifetime in the Run for the Roses, having won with Super Saver in 2010 and with Always Dreaming last year.
His runners are Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1) winner Audible (post 5), Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Magnum Moon (post 16), Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets (G2) winner Vino Rosso (post 18), and TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Noble Indy (post 19).
Robert and Lawana Low's unbeaten Magnum Moon, the 6-1 third choice, also faces the "Apollo Curse."
Pletcher maintained a poker face throughout the draw, even when the first of his four horses wasn't assigned a position until the 13th announced post, and then three ended up in the auxiliary gate (posts 15-20)
"It's kind of strange the way it unfolded with all four of them being so late," Pletcher said, and "three of the four in the auxiliary gate wouldn't have been what I ideally wanted. But you know you can work out good trips from bad posts and get bad trips from good posts."
Pletcher said he felt best about Audible in post five.
"Noble Indy and Magnum Moon have good tactical speed so hopefully they can get away from there cleanly and establish position," he said. "And I think Vino Rosso's looking to settle in the middle, and Audible got the best post of the group."
Pletcher did feel a little better, pumping his fist, when NBC Sports' Donna Barton showed him one of her notes that four of the last seven Derby winners came from the auxiliary gate.
"We'll go with that angle," Pletcher said.
Audible, a New York-bred son of Into Mischief , races for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing, and also captured the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park. Javier Castellano will ride. John Velazquez rode Audible in the Florida Derby, but has opted to ride Vino Rosso in the Run for the Roses.
Luis Saez will be aboard Magnum Moon, a strong winner of the Rebel Stakes (G2) prior to his four-length score in the Arkansas Derby. By Malibu Moon , Magnum Moon was a $380,000 Keeneland September yearling sale purchase by the Lows.
Good Magic, last year's champion 2-year-old male and winner of this year's Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) drew post 6. E Five Racing Thoroughbreds and Stonestreet Thoroughbreds Holding's son of Curlin will be ridden by Jose Ortiz and was pegged as the sixth betting choice at 12-1.
"Hopefully if he breaks away from there, he can secure a nice ground-saving position that first turn," said trainer Chad Brown. "I'm fine with it. It was one of those deals where you didn't want one of those first couple posts right down inside or something way, way outside where he's going to lose ground going 1 1/4 miles. It's a long way to go as it is and to add more distance to the race I don't think would work with this horse. So where he is, he can hopefully save some ground on both turns and work out a good trip."
As for being right next to Justify in post seven, Brown said: "Potentially he might be a good horse to follow into that first turn."
Ruis Racing's Bolt d'Oro was second to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. The son of Medaglia d'Oro was third in last year's Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) behind Good Magic and Solomini after winning back-to-back grade 1 races in Southern California.
Bolt d'Oro will break from post 11 under Victor Espinoza. He's the fourth betting choice at 8-1.
"One and 11 load first and one thing about Bolt is he's nice and cool," said Ruis. "He's almost too cool, that he can get relaxed in there. We've been working on that and I think it will be OK. I like it.
"I think there will be five horses probably in front of us and we go in the second tier the way it looks like it right now. It looks like we have some lay-back type horses, one to the left and two to the right of us so that kind of gives us some separation. That's what Victor wanted was to be in the second tier so I think it's about a perfect draw."
The fear of all Derby horsemen is drawing the rail, once a golden path to Derby success, but recent history puts the one-hole right next to purgatory. Ferdinand in 1986 is the last Derby winner to come from post 1, and prior to that Chateaugay won from there in 1963. That's two-for-55. However, last year longshot Lookin At Lee rode the rail to the runner-up spot behind Always Dreaming.
Mr. Amore Stable's Firenze Fire (50-1) drew the rail for Derby 144.
"I'm happy with it. I'm happy to be here, but I'm also happy with the one hole. Hopefully where we start is where we finish," said Mr. Amore Stable's Ron Lombardi. "The one hole is the third-most winning post position. After the five and the 10, it's the one and the eight. Everyone is against the one but you look up statistics and it's there. I'm happy with it."
Trainer Jason Servis said: "I'm OK with it. I'd rather have it than be stuck in 19 or something. We can save some ground and not have to be hung up wide."
The top spots to break from since the starting gate was first used in 1930 are post 5 (with 10 winners including Always Dreaming) and post 10 (nine winners; the most recent Giacomo in 2005).
Big Brown is the lone winner from post 20, but that slot has only been used 16 times since 1930. The last 10 winners of the Derby came from: 5, 13, 15, 5, 15, 19, 16, 4, 8, and 20.
Blended Citizen, winner of the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) is the lone also-eligible. Scratch time is 9 a.m. May 4.
Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 05, 2018, Race 12
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Firenze Fire (FL) Paco Lopez 126 Jason Servis 50/1 2 2Free Drop Billy (KY) Robby Albarado 126 Dale L. Romans 30/1 3 3Promises Fulfilled (KY) Corey J. Lanerie 126 Dale L. Romans 30/1 4 4Flameaway (ON) Jose Lezcano 126 Mark E. Casse 30/1 5 5Audible (NY) Javier Castellano 126 Todd A. Pletcher 8/1 6 6Good Magic (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 126 Chad C. Brown 12/1 7 7Justify (KY) Mike E. Smith 126 Bob Baffert 3/1 8 8Lone Sailor (KY) James Graham 126 Thomas M. Amoss 50/1 9 9Hofburg (KY) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 126 William I. Mott 20/1 10 10My Boy Jack (KY) Kent J. Desormeaux 126 J. Keith Desormeaux 30/1 11 11Bolt d'Oro (KY) Victor Espinoza 126 Mick Ruis 8/1 12 12Enticed (KY) Junior Alvarado 126 Kiaran P. McLaughlin 30/1 13 13Bravazo (KY) Luis Contreras 126 D. Wayne Lukas 50/1 14 14Mendelssohn (KY) Ryan L. Moore 126 Aidan P. O'Brien 5/1 15 15Instilled Regard (KY) Drayden Van Dyke 126 Jerry Hollendorfer 50/1 16 16Magnum Moon (KY) Luis Saez 126 Todd A. Pletcher 6/1 17 17Solomini (KY) Flavien Prat 126 Bob Baffert 30/1 18 18Vino Rosso (KY) John R. Velazquez 126 Todd A. Pletcher 12/1 19 19Noble Indy (KY) Florent Geroux 126 Todd A. Pletcher 30/1 20 20Combatant (KY) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 126 Steven M. Asmussen 50/1 21 21Blended Citizen (KY) Kyle Frey 126 Doug F. O'Neill 50/1
Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 05, 2018, Race 12
Alicia Wincze Hughes, Frank Angst, Lenny Shulman, and Gregory A. Hall contributed to this report