05/03/2017 1:10PM

Classic Empire, McCraken draw well for Kentucky Derby

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Barbara D. Livingston
Classic Empire, training at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, drew post 14 for the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Midway through the draw on Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, neither Classic Empire nor McCraken had a post, and the 1 hole was still unoccupied, a situation that was growing increasingly unnerving to those associated with both highly ranked colts.

But both wound up in advantageous posts. The 1 post was called for Lookin At Lee – a late runner for whom post should not matter – with Classic Empire landing post 14 and McCraken 15. They are part of a full field of 20, plus two also-eligibles, entered in the 143rd Derby.

Post 14 is the final box in the main starting gate. Post 15 is the first stall in the auxiliary gate. There is space between those two stalls, potentially affording a cleaner start than for those in adjacent stalls.

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“There’s a gap between us,” said Ian Wilkes, the trainer of McCraken. “I didn’t want the 1. That’s the one I didn’t want.”

Being drawn toward the outside of the field, Wilkes said, should allow jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. “some options.”

“He can read the race. And now I don’t have to give too many instructions,” Wilkes said, laughing.

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Having post 14 for Classic Empire, according to assistant Norman Casse, should enable jockey Julien Leparoux “to choose his spot.”

“He showed in the Arkansas Derby that he can sit wherever,” Casse said.

Classic Empire was installed as the 4-1 favorite on the morning line of Mike Battaglia, the oddsmaker at Churchill Downs. McCraken is 5-1 on Battaglia’s line, making him the co-second choice along with Always Dreaming, who drew post 5.

Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper, has Classic Empire favored at 5-1, with Always Dreaming next at 6-1, followed by McCraken and Irish War Cry as the co-third choices at 8-1.

Irish War Cry, like McCraken, is in the auxiliary gate. He is in post 17, which trainer Graham Motion, recalling the post draw for his 2011 Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, said he did not mind.

“I’m fine with it,” he said. “Animal Kingdom was 16. I like being outside with this horse. He runs his best races outside. I think the draw suits him.”

Outside of Irish War Cry in the final three stalls are Gormley, Practical Joke, and Patch.

Patch is missing his left eye, so all he’ll see just before the start is the giant crowd to his outside, though that situation should change in the opening furlongs as jockey Tyler Gaffalione tries to slide him over closer to the rail in the run to the first turn of the 1 1/4-mile race.

There were no late surprises to the main body of the race, with the 20 expected to make up the field all entering.

Up to four also-eligibles were allowed, but the only two outside the top 20 who entered were Royal Mo and Master Plan. They ranked lower than the top 20 owing to points they had earned in designated stakes races and were placed on the also-eligible list in that order.

Those two can only get in if there are scratches from horses in the main body of the race by Friday morning, which is scratch time for Saturday’s card.

Master Plan is one of four horses whom trainer Todd Pletcher entered in the race. John Velazquez was named as his rider, but Velazquez is the jockey for Always Dreaming, so Master Plan will need a rider if he draws in and Always Dreaming is not scratched.

Pletcher was allowed to name Velazquez on a second horse because Master Plan is on the also-eligible list. In addition to Master Plan and Always Dreaming, Pletcher has Tapwrit, who drew post 16, and Patch.

Local Hero was ranked higher on the points list than Master Plan, but under Kentucky racing rules, a horse cannot be entered in two races on the same day. Local Hero’s connections did not want to enter the Derby as an also-eligible and risk not getting in, so he was entered instead in the Pat Day Mile, a one-turn-mile race for 3-year-olds on Saturday.

All the Derby horses were on the grounds as of Tuesday night. The last to arrive was Girvin, who made his first appearance at Churchill Downs on Wednesday morning after spending the past 1 1/2 weeks at Keeneland and swimming at a nearby equine clinic while being treated for a quarter crack. He landed post 7.

Fast and Accurate, who drew post 3, was supplemented at entry time for $200,000, the fee required because he was not nominated to the Triple Crown for $600 in January or for $6,000 the week before he won the Spiral Stakes.

The Derby will be broadcast live by NBC, with post time approximately 6:50 p.m. Eastern. The forecast for Saturday, according to The Weather Channel, is for a 50 percent chance of showers and a high of just 60 degrees, following two days with a higher chance of rain and similarly cool temperatures.