Orb (right): the Florida Derby winner looks set to go off favouritePICTURE: EquiSport Photos/Joe Ganley
Orb out to repel Team Pletcher in Kentucky
Preview: USA, Saturday 11.24pm BST
Churchill Downs: Kentucky Derby (Grade 1) 1m2f, dirt, 3yo
LEADING trainer Todd Pletcher saddles no fewer than five runners in the 139th Kentucky Derby - but despite most of them holding serious chances, he may not be responsible for the favourite.
Instead, Florida Derby winner Orb (Shug McGaughey/Joel Rosario) was installed as market leader on the Churchill Downs morning line. The son of Malibu Moon is also vying for favouritism with British bookmakers on the 9-2 mark alongside Pletcher's Wood Memorial victor Verrazano.
Orb, who scored just once in four starts as a juvenile, has blossomed as a three-year-old with a hat-trick at Gulfstream Park, where he underlined his Derby credentials with a comfortable victory over Saturday's rival Itsmyluckyday in the Grade 1 Florida Derby.
With the extra furlong likely to suit him more than several of his rivals, Orb looks a solid contender in the $2.2 million event, where Ryan Moore rides Lines Of Battle for Ballydoyle.
One question mark for Orb is that he has never produced a really fast time according to the famous Beyer speed-figure scale. Kentucky Derby winners are usually expected to have at least one three-digit Beyer on their cv; Orb has never done better than 97.
"I think there's going to be horses that show a little more speed than maybe it shows on paper," said Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. "I'm just going to tell Joel to play the break and see what happens and try to hold some kind of position so when the time comes we got a chance to make that run."
John Velazquez, who rode Orb in Florida, also gets off him to ride Verrazano, though the significance may be overstated given his links to the Pletcher stable.
In contrast to Pletcher, who habitually turns up mob-handed, McGaughey hasn't had a Derby runner since 2002 - and has had only six previous runners altogether, doing best with the great Easy Goer, second to his arch-rival Sunday Silence in 1989.
Orb is drawn fairly wide in gate 16, two slots outside chief rival Verrazano (John Velazquez), who is part-owned by the Coolmore team. Unbeaten in four starts, the son of More Than Ready is out to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without running as a two-year-old.
Then again, he missed out by just a single day, having made his debut with a runaway success at Gulfstream Park on New Year's Day.
He went on to head the ante-post market with an emphatic victory over subsequent Blue Grass victor Java's War in the Tampa Bay Derby, only to look rather less impressive holding Saturday's rivals Normandy Invasion and Vyjack last month at Aqueduct in the Wood.
"He's a tremendous physical specimen," Pletcher said. "He's gotten bigger and stronger as we've gone along."
Pletcher's five-strong contingent - again equalling a record set by his mentor D Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito - also features Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary (Calvin Borel), Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze (Rafael Bejarano), Palace Malice (Mike Smith) and Charming Kitten (Edgar Prado).
Pletcher, who has one Derby win from 31 starters, knows not to expect too much, despite the numbers. When he saddled five runners in 2007, sixth-placed Circular Quay was the best he could muster.
"Holding four aces in this game is a little different than Texas Hold'em," he said. "We've been there with five, as have Zito and Lukas. But having five doesn't mean you'll win. I have a tremendous appreciation for how difficult it is to win the Derby."
With forecasters suggesting there is a 40 per cent chance of rain in Louisville, the possibility of a sloppy track comes into the reckoning which could favour Revolutionary, one of the few here to have scored on what Americans call an 'off' track.
His post position in gate three also offers an obvious inside route to jockey Calvin Borel, known as 'Bo-Rail' for his rail-skimming exploits - particularly at Churchill Downs, where he has won three Derbies on Street Sense (2007), Mine That Bird (2009) and Super Saver (2010), for Revolutionary's owners WinStar Farm.
European interest focuses on Aidan O'Brien's UAE Derby winner Lines Of Battle (Ryan Moore), who becomes Ballydoyle's fifth runner in the race and the third in a row he has taken on from Dubai after Master Of Hounds (fifth) and Daddy Long Legs (pulled up).
"He worked well on Tuesday morning and left later that day," said O'Brien. "He arrived in good form and while he handled the Tapeta well when winning at Meydan, the dirt will be a new experience and you can never be sure how a horse will handle it."
Stamina doubts surround Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents, who represents Doug O'Neill, trainer of last year's winner I'll Have Another. "I believe he has it in him to go a mile and a quarter," O'Neill said.
Goldencents is ridden by little-known Kevin Krigger, a native of the US Virgin Islands who is seeking to become the first black jockey to win the Derby in the modern era.
America's top female rider Rosie Napravnik attempts to become the first woman to win on Louisiana Derby runner-up Mylute (Tom Amoss).
Four-time winner D Wayne Lukas saddles both Oxbow (Gary Stevens) and Will Take Charge (Jon Court) as he bids for his fifth Derby success. Oxbow's 50-year-old jockey Stevens returned to race-riding in January after seven years in retirement; he has won the race three times, including on Winning Colors (1988) and Thunder Gulch (1995) for Lukas.
Kenny McPeek also has two runners in late-running Java's War (Julien Leparoux), who switched back to dirt after taking the Blue Grass on the Keeneland Polytrack, and longshot Frac Daddy (Victor Lebron).
Itsmyluckyday (Eddie Plesa/Elvis Trujillo), comfortably beaten by Orb in the Florida Derby, won in the slop at Calder last year, while possible front-runner Falling Sky (John Terranova/Luis Saez) also has 'off'-track form.
Normandy Invasion (Chad Brown/Javier Castellano) looks primed for a big run after getting to within three-quarters of a length of Verrazano last term with a strong closing challenge.