Kentucky Derby favorite Dialed In is washed down following an early morning… (John Sommers II / Reuters )
Reporting from Louisville, Ky.
No one can say with any real certainty whether Uncle Mo will be in the starting gate Saturday when the Kentucky Derby is run for the 137th time at Churchill Downs. He's still battling a gastrointestinal infection that could result in a scratch right up until post time.
But even if he does run, there is a good chance he won't be the favorite. For now, that honor goes to Dialed In, the horse Churchill Downs handicapper Mike Battaglia picked as the 4-1 morning line favorite Wednesday after the Nick Zito-trained colt drew the favorable eighth stall in the Derby post position draw.
The No. 8 position has been a good place to start the race in recent years. Barbaro (2006) and Mine That Bird (2008) won the Derby from that position.
Uncle Mo — who was undefeated as a 2-year-old and looked like the most talented horse in his age group until a recent third-place finish at the Wood Memorial — was named the early second choice at 9-2 after he drew the No. 18 post position. Nehro was Battaglia's third choice at 6-1 in what is being called one of toughest Derbies to handicap in years.
Dialed In, who won the Florida Derby last month by a nose, didn't get nearly the attention Uncle Mo did during the Derby prep season, but the colt might be peaking at just the right time for Zito and owner Robert LaPenta. Zito has won the Derby twice, but he hasn't visited the winner's circle since 1994 with Go For Gin.
"It could have gone either way with Dialed in or Uncle Mo," Zito said. "He could have been 4-1 and we could have been 9-2. I'm very flattered by it, I guess. But anything Dialed In does, he deserves it."
The biggest question, however, remains the status of Uncle Mo, the horse trained by last year's Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher. Uncle Mo made only a brief appearance at the track Wednesday, and his owner Mike Repole repeated his belief that the horse has about a "50-50 chance" of running on Saturday. Pletcher wants to see how he reacts once he's off antibiotics before he makes a final decision.
"I knew this wasn't all going to be roses," Repole said. "I'm not delusional about the sport. I knew how lucky I was, and how quickly things can turn for you. Internally, we just don't know right now. I'm going to listen to our vets, listen to Todd Pletcher, and then we'll make a decision. But he's here for a reason. I put up $25,000 so he could run, and if he wasn't going to run, I wouldn't have put up that money. My wife could take that money and go shopping."
The rest of the field is as wide open as it has been in years, with eight horses currently sitting at 30-1 odds. Nehro looked like a trendy pick prior to the draw, but then he drew the No. 19 post position, a stall that has never produced a winner in the history of the Derby.
"He hasn't been eliminated, you know what I mean?" trainer Steve Asmussen said. "He needs to run the race of his life, but all is well. There are a lot of scenarios in a 20-horse field that will change how you get to the backside, but I think this gives us a good chance."
Bob Baffert, who felt like his Derby hopes were crushed in last year's post position draw when Lookin At Lucky drew the rail, pumped his fist in the air when his horse this year, Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude, snagged the No. 15 stall.
"If I drew the rail again, I was going to vomit right there in front of everybody," Baffert said. "I was dreading it. ... I'm good with 15. I wanted to be right around there. I didn't want to be down inside."
This year, the unfortunate No. 1 spot went to Archarcharch (10-1), a stroke of bad luck that trainer Jinks Fires tried to handle with good humor.
"It's still the shortest way around the track," Fires said. "At least I'm not out next to the track kitchen."
No trainer and owner want their horse to have to fight through a crowd too many times, and no duo understands that better than Zito and LaPenta. Last year, they probably had the best horse in the Derby field in Ice Box, but he had to be held up three times by jockey Jose Lezcano to avoid contact. He still closed strong and finished a close second to Super Saver.
"I think if he runs his best race, he's going to be the horse to beat," LaPenta said. "It's a great feeling. But we have to make sure what happened to Ice Box last year doesn't happen to Dialed In."