With his pick between two of the top contenders for Kentucky Derby 145, Mike Smith got to choose. With Tuesday’s post-position draw for Saturday’s renewal of the “Run for the Roses,” the Hall of Fame jockey was not so lucky. And it worked out anyway.
“I like where I’m at,” Smith said.
What’s not to like? With his new wife, Cynthia, by his side, Smith watched his mount, Omaha Beach, draw the No. 12 post position and be tabbed the 4-1 favorite in the field of 20 for the world’s most famous race, slated for a 6:50 p.m. Saturday post time.
Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia made last year’s 2-year-old champion, Game Winner, second choice at 5-1. Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster and Arkansas Derby runner-up Improbable are co-third choice at 6-1. The trio is trained by Bob Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby five times, including last year with Triple Crown champion Justify.
In fact, it was none other than Smith who rode Roadster to his Santa Anita Derby win on April 6, leading most to believe the jockey would stick with Baffert after the duo dominated last year with Justify. Instead, Smith opted for trainer Richard Mandella and Omaha Beach, who he rode to an Arkansas Derby win on April 13.
“I just felt that Omaha Beach, for this race, has more seasoning underneath himself and he would handle any kind of surface,” Smith said Tuesday. “You go in with less worries. And his running style fit the previous Derby (winners), as well.”
Smith admitted he grew a little worried Tuesday when Omaha Beach was not among the first 18 names drawn and only the 3 and the 12 post positions were still open. He did not want the 3.
“Maximum Security is probably going to be the pace, on paper anyway,” said Smith of the Florida Derby winner who drew the No. 7 post. “I’ve got pretty much a similar running style to his, so I’d rather be on the outside of him so if he does want to be aggressive and go (to the lead) he can certainly do that. But if my horse gets away like I pray he can, he’ll be forwardly placed as well.”
The horse who got stuck on the far inside was the star-crossed War of Will. A strained patellar ligament early led to a ninth-place finish as the favorite in the Louisiana Derby. The colt rebounded to turn in a blistering work (4 furlongs in 47.60 seconds) on Saturday at Churchill only to draw the dreaded No. 1 post position Tuesday.
“It could be worse, I think,” trainer Mark Casse told the NTRA afterward. “Our horse is really on his game so he’ll come away running.”
Country House, third in the Arkansas Derby, drew the far outside post at No. 20. Trainer Bill Mott’s other entrant, Tacitus, is co-fifth choice with Maximum Security at 10-1. Tacitus drew the No. 8 post, a good spot for a colt who overcame traffic problems to win the Wood Memorial on April 6.
“But all traffic problems are not the same,” Mott said Tuesday. “I guess the thing you’ve always got to worry about is the horses stopping in front of you when you get to the second turn. You just have got hope something opens up for you.”
They’re all hoping for that run to daylight, from long shots Master Fencer and Gray Magician, both 50-1, to the Derby master Baffert, with this year’s triple threat.
“It’s OK,” said Baffert of his draw — No. 5 for Improbable; No. 16 for Game Winner and No. 17 for Roadster. “I would like to have seen Game Winner further down. I just didn’t want to have the 1 or the 2 hole. I didn’t want to be down there.”
“Bad posts can turn into good posts,” Smith said. “But like Bob says, you’ve got to have the horse underneath you.”
Mike Smith believes he has that horse.
145th Kentucky Derby
When: 6:50 p.m. Saturday
Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville
Purse: $3 million (Grade 1)
Distance: 1 1/4 miles (dirt)