Curlin Draws Favorable Position at Derby

By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 3, 2007

LOUISVILLE, May 2 -- The proven champion or the captivating yet largely unknown raw talent? That was the choice Churchill Downs linemaker Mike Battaglia had to make in picking the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

After post positions were drawn late Wednesday afternoon in downtown Louisville, Battaglia, in his 33rd year making the line, decided the betting public would venture into the unknown Saturday and installed Curlin as the 7-2 favorite to win the Run for the Roses. He made Street Sense the second choice at 4-1.

In just three career starts, all this spring, Curlin has mesmerized the racing world, winning them all by a combined 28 1/2 lengths. His 10 1/2 -length tour de force April 14 in the Arkansas Derby compelled Battaglia to give him the nod over Street Sense, last year's 2-year-old champion, who won the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, also by 10 lengths.

"It was a flip of the coin," Battaglia said. "Curlin and Street Sense are very close, but I went with Curlin. He's undefeated and we don't know how good he is."

Curlin, trained by Steve Asmussen, may look impressive in everything he does, but he faces not only 19 other runners in the 1 1/4 -mile race but powerful historical trends conspiring against him. Of the 10 horses in the 132-year history of the Derby who have entered after just three starts, only Regret in 1915 has won the race. Also daunting, the last horse to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882.

Asmussen, who also has the talented Zanjero in the field, had little regard for the odds.

"The morning line is free, and everything that's free on the racetrack isn't worth anything," he said.

Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, echoed the sentiment.

"We're all 19-1 when we go into the gate, said Nafzger, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1990 with Unbridled. "I was hoping to be 20-1 like Unbridled. I don't care what the morning line is. I'd just like to be number one to the wire."

Post positions were selected in two parts, starting with a random draw to determine the selection order by connections of each horse. Five of the principle entrants -- Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago, Louisiana Derby winner Circular Quay, Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Any Given Saturday, Blue Grass Stakes winner Dominican and Robert S. Lewis Stakes winner Great Hunter -- all had late draws and wound up parked in the auxiliary starting gate on the far outside.

The outside draw has been kind in recent years, with seven of the past 25 winners starting in the auxiliary gate, but no horse since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 has won from the outside post, where Great Hunter landed.

Trainer Doug O'Neill, who will saddle Great Hunter and Liquidity (post No. 9) in the race, said the post didn't bother him.

"Actually, we're okay with where they both drew," the California-based trainer said. "A horse like Great Hunter, his best races have been off the pace. Being able to load last and not having to stand in the gate will benefit him. In a 20-horse field, from the one hole, the seven hole or the 20 hole, you're still going to have to be lucky and get position."

Most horsemen with early picks gravitated toward the middle post positions, but their horses happened to be some of the fastest in the field. Cowtown Cat, Hard Spun, Liquidity, Teuflesberg, Nobiz Like Shobiz and Sam P. -- all pace-pressing types or front-runners -- are tightly bunched, creating the potential for an early speed war developing at the center of the pack.

"It does seem like a lot of the horses will shove early to gain position," O'Neill said. "With a 20-horse field, a lot of jockeys don't want to get in trouble or get caught up, so they may try getting going a little faster then the connections might want them to go."

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