Despite problematic post positions, this Kentucky Derby could be a two-horse race

When the pills were pulled and the sheets drawn Saturday night, it looked bad for the two top favorites for the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Fierceness drew the No. 17 post position. Not-so-fun fact: No horse has won the Kentucky Derby out of the No. 17 post. Those that have tried are a big fat 0-for-44.

Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes winner Sierra Leone drew the No. 2 post position. Trivia question: Who was the last colt to wear the roses after breaking from post 2? Trivia answer: Affirmed back in 1978. If you do the math, that’s 46 years ago.

Ah, but once you took a step back and considered all the factors for the Saturday’s renewal of the $5 million race at Churchill Downs, the posts didn’t look all that problematic.

“Not that bad,” Sierra Leone’s trainer, Chad Brown, told Churchill Downs after the draw in Churchill’s new $200 million paddock. “Sierra Leone, he’s in just a touch farther in than I wanted, but he didn’t get the 1 hole so I’m OK with that. With this particular horse, what I didn’t want was the 19 or 20. In fact, it would have been hard for him to drop over without losing ground, significant ground around the first turn.”

After all, Sierra Leone is a deep closer who comes from off the pace. He was dead last for much of the Blue Grass at Keeneland before stepping on the gas for a 1 1/2-length win. From the No. 2 hole, the $2.3 million colt can drop back and find a favorable position for a strong late run.

Trainer Mike Repole throws his paper in the air as his horse Fierceness draws the 17th position at the Kentucky Derby Draw at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Clare Grant/USA TODAY NETWORK
Trainer Mike Repole throws his paper in the air as his horse Fierceness draws the 17th position at the Kentucky Derby Draw at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Clare Grant/USA TODAY NETWORK

As for Fierceness, the 2-year-old champion and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is not the biggest colt on the block. Instead of being stuck inside where bumps are inevitable, trainer Todd Pletcher’s colt can blend into the pack from his No. 17 post.

“I’m fine with the post,” Pletcher said afterward. “There’s a long enough run into the first turn to hopefully establish position.”

Meanwhile, owner Mike Repole will be happy just to see his colt in the gate on Saturday. Last year, it was the Repole-owned and Pletcher-trained Forte that was scratched the morning of a Kentucky Derby in which he was expected to be the favorite.

Asked Friday what post he’d be happy with for Fierceness, Repole responded, “One through 20,” with a big smile.

Speaking of which, Danny Gargan covered both those bases. The trainer drew both the rail with Dornoch taking the dreaded No. 1 post, and the far outside post with Society Man drawing No. 20.

“Dornoch is going to come out of there running so it’s not the end of the world,” Gargan said of the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth winner. “It’s the new gate so a lot of people are saying the 1 hole is not what it used to be. So we’re not breaking into that funny turn and that will help, too. I don’t think it’s the kiss of death.”

Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia made Fierceness the 5-2 favorite with Sierra Leone the second choice at 3-1. Next in his morning line is Catching Freedom at 8-1, supporting the widely held belief that while anything can happen in the Derby — i.e. 80-1 Rich Strike in 2022 — this shapes up as a two-horse race.

Catching Freedom won the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and will break from the No. 4 hole in Louisville. Blue Grass Stakes runner-up Just a Touch is 10-1 after drawing the No. 8 post. UAE Derby winner and Japanese champion Forever Young will break from the No. 11 post. He’s also 10-1.

“Post positions are pretty overrated in my opinion,” said Brad Cox, who trains Catching Freedom and Just a Touch, as well as Grade 3 Lexington Stakes winner Encino, who at 20-1 drew post No. 9. “They all drew fine. If you’re a good enough horse, you can overcome any post position.”

Pletcher and Brown hope that holds true for posts 17 and 2.

Repole’s (edited) post-draw post: “Let’s go!!!!!!!”

Post positions drawn for Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. See the full fields with odds.

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