(Reuters) - California Chrome was installed as the early short-priced favorite for Saturday’s 140th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs after getting a perfect starting gate at Wednesday’s post position draw.
Oddsmakers immediately installed the three-year-old colt as the 5-2 choice for the $2 million classic when he drew barrier five in the 20-horse field.
Trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman, California Chrome was already looming as the likely top pick after romping to victory in each of his three races this year.
And jockey Victor Espinoza, who won the 2002 Kentucky Derby on War Emblem, said the post position was a good omen for his chances of winning a second “Run for the Roses” on Saturday.
“The last time I won the Kentucky Derby I was number five so hopefully that’s my lucky number,” he said.
“He’s just an amazing horse to ride. I just let him do his own thing and I think he likes that.
“I really don’t go against him during the race and I think that’s why he’s running so great.”
Hoppertunity, which finished runner-up to California Chrome at the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, was installed as the second choice on the betting markets at odds of 6-1.
The colt drew nicely in post 11 and jockey Mike Smith, who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby on long-shot Giacomo, said he had improved a lot since his last run.
“California Chrome was tough that day but we secured second,” Smith said. “He galloped out really well, he’s doing great and he seems to love the track, so it’s all systems go.”
Wicked Strong had been lurking as the likely second favorite on the strength of his impressive win in the Wood Memorial in New York but he drifted to the line of betting at odds of 8-1 after drawing gate 20.
If there was any consolation for his connections it may be that he managed to avoid the dreaded number one position, which hasn’t produced the race winner in over a quarter of a century.
Because of the unusual position of the starting gates for the 1-1/4 mile (2000 meters) journey, horses drawn in the inside are invariably cut off as they approach the rails and shuffled back through the pack.
“I guess it was kind of a shock,” said jockey Rosie Napravnik after she drew one on Vicar’s In Trouble, which led every step of the way to win last month’s Louisiana Derby.
“It’s not ideal. I don’t think anyone wants the one hole.
“But if I had to have any horse to come out of the one hole, it would be Vicar’s because he’s real sharp out of the gate and I think we’ll be able to get into a good position anyway.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher has four runners in the field, including 10-1 shot Danza, the Arkansas Derby winner who drew four.
Pablo Del Monte was not given a position during the draw but was listed as the alternate entrant for the opening leg of the Triple Crown should any of the 20 runners scratch before Friday morning.
Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue