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High drama as Essential Quality is installed as Kentucky Derby favorite

By
Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Essential Quality was installed Tuesday as the favorite for the 147th Kentucky Derby. Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs
Essential Quality was installed Tuesday as the favorite for the 147th Kentucky Derby. Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs

April 27 (UPI) -- The post-position draw for a big race can be a yawner, but not Tuesday's draw for Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

With only three of the 20 horses, including two of the favorites -- Essential Quality and Known Agenda -- yet to be assigned starting gates, the No. 1 slot still was on the board.

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No. 1 in the Derby is one of the most-dreaded spots in the entire racing year, and tension was building by the second.

"I'm not going to lie," said Brad Cox, trainer of Essential Quality, undefeated and the reigning 2-year-old champion. "I've been good all week but, man, that was nerve-wracking, to say the least.

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"Obviously, we didn't want to be in the No. 1 hole," added Cox, who is saddling his first Derby starters.

Cox heaved a huge sigh of relief when the rail slot went to Known Agenda and his colt then drew No. 14.

"Very pleased," Cox said.

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Todd Pletcher, who trains Known Agenda and three other Derby starters, put the best possible face on the inside slot.

"No question, it's not the post we wanted," Pletcher said. "But I do think it's not the big disadvantage it used to be with the new starting gate. We'll just try to work out the best trip we can. In the Florida Derby [which Known Agenda won],he was on the inside and he handled it."

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His reference was to the Australian-built, 20-horse starting gate that last year replaced the old system that saw a main gate lashed to an auxiliary gate to accommodate 20 horses. Eliminating the yawning gap between the gates compacts the lineup by 15 feet and allows Churchill Downs to move the inside spot several feet off the rail.

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Despite the improvement, analyst and former jockey Gary Stevens, a three-time Derby winner, told the NBC television audience he has had the experience in big races of being shuffled back and eliminated from contention with a slow start from inside.

"It's not the best situation," Stevens said. "It's a long mile and a quarter when you know you have no chance in the Kentucky Derby."

Otherwise in the Derby draw:

When the dust had cleared and Miss Kentucky Alex Francke had hung the last horse's plaque on the post-position board, oddsmaker Mike Battaglia installed Essential Quality as the 2-1 favorite. Rock Your World was posted at 5-1, Known Agenda at 6-1, Hot Rod Charlie at 8-1, and all the others at double-digit odds.

Essential Quality is owned by Godolphin, the racing entity of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. "Sheik Mo" has been chasing a Kentucky Derby victory for decades without success and appears to have his best chance ever with this distinctive, light-gray colt.

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Medina Spirit, trainer Bob Baffert's only contender as he seeks a record seventh Derby victory, drew the No. 8 hole. Baffert, usually front-and-center at such events, was notably absent from the draw ceremony.

Rock Your World, who switched off the turf to win the Santa Anita Derby in his last start, was assigned gate 14.

Trainer John Sadler called that "a good draw," adding, "The good thing about him is he doesn't have to have the lead. He's not going to come from way back. But he has tactical speed and he can carry it for a distance."

Trainer Steve Asmussen, closing in on the record for most total wins by a trainer, but still lacking a Derby victory, was emotional about the chances of Arkansas Derby winner Super Stock for personal reasons. The colt is part-owned by his father and the trainer's son won his first stakes race with him last year.

"It's been a dream," Asmussen said. "How could it get any better than that?"

Trainer Doug O'Neill said he's high on the chances of Hot Rod Charlie, whose supporters raised a cheer at the draw ceremony when he drew the No. 9 gate, prompting O'Neill to say, "I think they just heard the bar is open."

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Of Hot Rod Charlie, O'Neill noted he won the Louisiana Derby March 20 going 1 3/16 miles, defeating several of the same rivals he will face on Saturday.

"I think it adds to the allure of our horse that he's won at just under a mile and a quarter and had six weeks to recover from that," O'Neill said.

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