LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Harlan's Holiday drew the No. 14 post position yesterday and was installed as the 9-2 morning-line favorite for the 128th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
A full field of 20 was entered for the race scheduled to begin at 6:04 p.m. Saturday.
A last-minute entrant surprised the gathering at the Kentucky Derby Museum and knocked one horse out of the race - a horse whose connections only hours before had begun celebrating getting into the field.
Bob Baffert entered Danthebluegrassman, last in the Santa Anita Derby, after keeping it a secret all day. With Danthebluegrassman in, that meant Windward Passage was out.
When the connections (owners and trainers) of more than 20 horses want to enter the Kentucky Derby, the field is chosen based on earnings in graded stakes races. Windward Passage, third in the Arkansas Derby, ranked 21st in earnings. He could get into the race only if a horse who had earned more dropped out.
That apparently happened yesterday morning when the trainer of Mayakovsky announced that the colt would not run in the Derby. Steve Asmussen, who trains Windward Passage, and the members of Team Valor, the partnership group that owns the gelding, began celebrating their good fortune.
But at 4:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the start of the post-position draw, they learned that Danthebluegrassman had been entered. A grim-faced Asmussen said the news was "very disappointing. Everybody had been congratulating us all day for getting in."
Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, responded with a curt: "I'm not making any comment."
Baffert, who trains Danthebluegrassman for well-known owner Mike Pegram, responded to questions about his questionable maneuver.
"We wanted to keep it hush-hush," he said. "We didn't want to stir anybody up. The minute we entered him, I just turned my phone off." Baffert said that he "didn't want to be bugged" about it.
He said the colt had flourished at Churchill Downs, "and Mike [Pegram] is the kind of guy who will take a chance and let it roll. A lot of my second-stringers have beaten my first-stringers, so we thought we'd take a shot."
Baffert's first-stringer is War Emblem, a horse he began training less than a month ago. One of Baffert's wealthy owners, Saudi Arabian Prince Ahmed bin Salman, bought War Emblem after his impressive victory April 6 in the Illinois Derby and turned him over to Baffert to train for the Kentucky Derby.
War Emblem is 20-1 in the morning line, and Danthebluegrassman is 50-1. The 9-2 odds for Harlan's Holiday represent the highest morning-line odds for a Derby favorite in history, according to the Churchill Downs' publicity department.
Mike Battaglia, who has set the Derby's early line since 1975, said Harlan's Holiday, despite his impressive record of six wins and four seconds in 10 starts, has not captured the fancy of bettors. He said he wouldn't even guarantee that Harlan's Holiday would be favored at post time.
Battaglia tabbed Buddha and Came Home at 5-1, and Johannesburg and Medaglia d'Oro at 6-1.
"Four horses within one point of each other; that's unheard of," Battaglia said. "This is going to be a great betting race."
Ken McPeek, trainer of Harlan's Holiday, said post 14 was the choice of Edgar Prado, his jockey. "He wanted the opening on his outside," McPeek said.
When more than 14 horses start in the Derby, the first 14 break from one starting gate and the others break from an auxiliary gate. A slight gap exists between gates, so the horse breaking from post 14 has no horse breaking within inches to his right.
Five of the last seven derbies have been won by horses breaking from post 15 or 16.
Several of the leading contenders wound up with outside posts. And Johannesburg, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, ended up with post 1.
Connections of each horse selected their own post in a two-step process televised on ESPN. The first step involved a draw to establish the order post positions would be selected. The second step involved picking the posts.
Buddha, winner of the Wood Memorial Stakes, had the first selection. His trainer, H. James Bond, chose post 10. He said he wanted the colt to start from the middle of the pack.
NOTES: The Kentucky Oaks lost its third major filly yesterday when Bella Bellucci was scratched from tomorrow's race, the 3-year-old filly counterpart to the Derby. Neil Drysdale, Bella Bellucci's trainer, said blood tests on the filly came back "poor." Trainer Carl Nafzger said the day before that Bob Manfuso's Belterra would not compete because she had not fully recovered from throat surgery.