LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The favorite was pulled at the start of the week. Heavy thunderstorms in today's forecast could turn the dirt strip at Churchill Downs into something resembling peanut butter.
A year after Mine That Bird won at 50-1 odds by hugging the rail in the slop, the Kentucky Derby is setting up for another wild finish today. A full field of 20 3-year-olds is poised to run 1¼ miles for a $1.4 million prize.
Lookin At Lucky is the 3-1 morning-line choice and breaks from the No. 1 post, with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert seeking his fourth victory. He inherited the role of favorite after trainer Todd Pletcher withdrew Eskendereya because of a swollen leg. Eskendereya was touted as the latest super horse after winning his past two starts by a combined 18¼ lengths.
"You got to be prepared for disappointment," said Baffert, whose front-running Pioneerof the Nile was overtaken in the stretch last year by Mine That Bird.
Pletcher, who is 0-for-24 in the Derby, will still saddle four horses, but none is as highly regarded.
The second choice is Sidney's Candy at 5-1 and starting in the 20th spot, followed by three others at 10-1 — Awesome Act, Ice Box and Pletcher's Devil May Care.
Devil May Care is trying to become the fourth filly to win the Derby.
The forecast calls for highs in the mid 70s with showers and thunderstorms that could produce 1 inch of rain in the morning. Then there could be showers totaling a quarter-inch through the post time.
The wettest Derby day was in 1918, when 2.31 inches of rain fell, according to National Weather Service records.
Depending on how gloomy it gets, this Derby could be the first run under the lights that were installed in the winter. Churchill Downs officials say they have the option of flipping the switch to brighten things.
Most of the field has no experience racing in the muck, including Lookin At Lucky, who has run only once on dirt but won. The colt, along with Sidney's Candy, Conveyance and American Lion are from California, where they run on synthetic surfaces.
"A lot of those horses are going to have mud splashed in their face," Baffert said. "It hits their belly and face. They throw their head up, they lose interest and they get scared."
Gary Stevens, who rode three Derby winners, is an analyst on NBC's telecast. "Realistically, you can see these jockeys wearing up to 10 pairs of goggles," he said. "When you've got that many layers of goggles stacked up, everything becomes very distorted. Your vision is impaired significantly. Front-runners are definitely going to have an advantage on a sloppy racetrack."
The last horse before Mine That Bird to win in the mud was Smarty Jones, who splashed to victory in 2004. His son, Backtalk, is in the field today, and he's 2-for-2 on a wet track. Other entries with success in wet conditions are Super Saver, Devil May Care and Discreetly Mine — all trained by Pletcher.
"Normally I'd be sweating the weather forecast, but seeing the way they trained on a sloppy track, I wouldn't mind if it rained," Pletcher said.
Still, the race may be won early. Said Baffert: "If you can make it through the first turn unscathed, you have a chance."
Information from Newsday was used in this report.