LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There will be no blaming the post-position draw if Hard Spun gets into trouble in Saturday's 133d Kentucky Derby.
Last night, the Chester County-bred 3-year-old, owned by Wilmington's Rick Porter, drew a perfect spot, the No. 8 gate in the 20-horse field, the same position where 2006 winner Barbaro began.
Undefeated Curlin, the smashing Arkansas Derby winner, was made the 7-2 morning-line favorite, although he'll start far inside, from the No. 2 gate, and is trying to win in just the fourth race of his life.
He's a slight favorite over 4-1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Street Sense, who has the No. 7 gate. No Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner has won the Derby, but none had ever won by 10 lengths like Street Sense did. The real issue: Only one horse since 1947 has won off only two races as a 3-year-old.
Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, who also has 30-1 Zanjero, didn't profess to care that his horse was established as the favorite.
"The morning line is free," Asmussen said, "and anything on the racetrack that's free isn't worth anything."
Todd Pletcher has a record-tying five horses in the field, and three of the top six morning-line favorites: 8-1 Circular Quay, 10-1 Scat Daddy, and 12-1 Any Given Saturday. All that means is that there will probably be more pressure on Pletcher than on any other trainer. If Pletcher doesn't win, it means he will be 0-for-19 in the Derby, and no trainer in Derby history has had so many without winning.
Pletcher didn't love the gates he got - Any Given Saturday got the worst of the five of them and will start in the No. 18 gate - but the trainer professed no concern about Circular Quay starting from the No. 16.
"Probably with him the post position mattered the least," Pletcher said. "He's a horse who's probably going to fall far back anyway."
Both of the Chester County-bred horses in the race, Hard Spun and Great Hunter, were given 15-1 morning-line odds. (Six horses have shorter odds.) Great Hunter, bred by Phil Fanning's Ivy Dell Stud, and one of three Derby starters in trainer Doug O'Neill's barn, got no break from the post-position draw. He starts from the far outside, from the No. 20 gate. The last horse to win from the outside gate was Middleground in 1950, when 14 horses were in the race.
Hard Spun's jockey, Mario Pino, is one of three Delaware Park regulars riding in the Derby. Stewart Elliott is back for the first time since winning in 2004 on Smarty Jones, riding 30-1 Teuflesberg. Ramon Dominguez, second last year on Bluegrass Cat, is on 20-1 Sam P.
At the Derby, there are actually two draws. In the morning, the connections draw a selection order, then they select their post position in that order. Hard Spun had drawn the No. 3 pick behind Storm in May and Teuflesberg. Curlin's connections didn't get to pick until the 16th spot, which is how the horse ended up so far inside.
But Curlin still has plenty of respect from the trainers who have to try to beat him.
"A monster," said Bill Kaplan, trainer of 30-1 Storm in May, which finished second to Curlin in the Arkansas Derby.
Curlin "worries me a lot," Pletcher said. "I know he's bucking all the statistical traditions, but no one's gotten close to him yet."
Pletcher mentioned Street Sense as the other horse to beat.
This week, most of the questions about Hard Spun - bred at Betty Moran's Brushwood Stable in Malvern - have been about Monday's blazing five-furlong workout in 57.60 seconds.
"Everybody's already told me I've already blown it," trainer Larry "Cowboy" Jones quipped. "All that's left is to put Band-Aids on him and try to get him there."
Jones said his horse came out of the workout well.
"When it was time to pull up, I had to try to convince him that was enough," said Jones, who galloped the horse himself yesterday.
Jones mentioned that he got a phone call of encouragement yesterday from LeRoy Jolley, who trained two Derby winners, Foolish Pleasure in 1975 and Genuine Risk in 1980. Jolley was calling because he also trained General Assembly in 1979, when the horse worked even faster, in 57.2, the Wednesday before that Derby. General Assembly didn't win, but it took Spectacular Bid, one of the greats of the sport, to beat him.
John Shirreffs, trainer of 2005 winner Giacomo, is back with the colt's half-brother, Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago, who has a similar style as a deep closer and comes in with the same jockey, Mike Smith, but with more respect. Giacomo went off at 50-1 odds. Tiago is at 15-1.
Barclay Tagg, trainer of 2003 winner Funny Cide, also has a horse with even better odds this time, 8-1 Wood Memorial winner Nobiz Like Shobiz. The owner turned down a $17 million offer for the horse, according to the New York Times.
All that shows is the worth of having a Derby winner.
Pletcher is now the sport's dominant trainer. His career statistics: 8,021 starts, 1,783 wins, $121,792,458 in earnings.
And no wins in Triple Crown races.
Inside Pletcher's office here, there is an autographed Peyton Manning jersey that Pletcher said he bought at an auction. The symbolism is obvious. Manning was the best quarterback in professional football without a title until Indianapolis won this year's Super Bowl.
"Who knows, maybe it will get the monkey off my back," Pletcher said.
Starting Five for a Record-Setting Trainer
Trainer Todd Pletcher has never won the Kentucky Derby, but he will tie a record with five entrants for Saturday's race at Churchill Downs.
Pletcher, who has won three consecutive Eclipse Awards as the nation's top trainer, will join his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Derby winner, and two-time winner Nick Zito as the only trainers with five Derby starters in the race's 133-year history.
Lukas won with Grindstone when he saddled five in 1996, while Zito was shut out with his five in 2005.
Here's Pletcher's list, with morning-line odds. Also included is how his others have fared since 2000.
The Drive With Five
Circular Quay 8-1
Scat Daddy 10-1
Any Given Saturday 12-1
Cowtown Cat 20-1
Sam P. 20-1
Blasts From The Past
Pletcher has had 14 starters in previous Derbies, finishing second twice, with Bluegrass Cat last year and 55-1 longshot Invisible Ink in 2001. He ran four in 2000, with the least-heralded, Impeachment, finishing third.
Bluegrass Cat 2d
Keyed Entry 20th
Flower Alley 9th
Coin Silver 12th
Pollard's Vision 17th
Wild Horses 18th
Invisible Ink 2d
Balto Star 14th
More Than Ready 4th
Graeme Hall (DNF)
Find more Derby coverage at http://go.philly.com/derby.EndText