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Kentucky Derby: Free-for-all

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He is still someone the media flock to whenever they need an opinion, an answer or an amusing anecdote and, with four Kentucky Derby wins on his resume, D. Wayne Lukas is also the unofficial spokesman when it comes to analyzing...

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He is still someone the media flock to whenever they need an opinion, an answer or an amusing anecdote and, with four Kentucky Derby wins on his resume, D. Wayne Lukas is also the unofficial spokesman when it comes to analyzing the first Saturday in May.

"It's a humbling challenge in every way," the Hall of Fame trainer said this week. "It's just too tough; everything has to kind of fall into place. It's not like the NBA playoffs. It's one shot."

As was the case a year ago, the complexion of the first leg of the Triple Crown has seemingly been changing by the minute this past week. The expected favorite went to the sidelines, a couple of surprise entrants got in, and an impending rainstorm is threatening to turn the 1¼-mile classic into a bog.

The 2009 Kentucky Derby lost its favorite the morning of the race when I Want Revenge was scratched because of an ankle injury, and trainer Todd Pletcher announced Sunday that Grade I winner Eskendereya -- considered to be his best chance at an elusive first Derby win -- would miss the race because of an inflammation in his left front leg.

The effect from Eskendereya's withdrawal was almost immediate. With his regular rider, John Velazquez, now freed up, Pletcher and owner John Greathouse decided to enter the Grade I-winning filly Devil May Care in the Derby rather than Friday's Kentucky Oaks.

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Rail hugger

Reigning juvenile champion Lookin At Lucky rightly became the morning-line favorite, but his chances for victory got much tougher when he drew the No. 1 post in the 20-horse field. There have been 12 winners from that position since 1900, but War Admiral in 1937 was the only one to beat 19 horses.

"I'm just enjoying the moment right now because I know anything can happen," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Lookin At Lucky and fellow Derby entrant Conveyance. "I'm just going to stay focused and get that saddle on them. If they win, they win, if they don't, you did your job. That's all you can hope for."

Closers such as Ice Box and Awesome Act need the pace scenario to play out as expected today.

Several contenders, most notably Conveyance, Line of David and Sidney's Candy, are confirmed front-runners who have yet to show much ability to rate. Super Saver, Discreetly Mine and American Lion have also done their best running on or close to the lead.

"I don't see my horses being part of the leaders. That should be Line of David and Conveyance," said Pletcher, who will now saddle Devil May Care, Discreetly Mine, Super Saver and Mission Impazible as he attempts to end his 0-for-24 Derby streak. "I expect the half-mile split to be somewhere in the :46 range depending on how much Line of David or Conveyance want it. But I don't think any of my horses need the lead."

Managing the mud

None of the 3-year-olds have gone 1¼ miles before, but the big question is who can handle the slop.

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Today's forecast calls for rain and heavy thunderstorms throughout the day, and only a handful of horses in the field have experience in the mud.

Devil May Care, who trained strongly over the muck earlier in the week, broke her maiden by 4¾ lengths over a sloppy Saratoga surface in August. And Super Saver -- in addition to winning once at Churchill -- broke his maiden by 7 lengths in the slop at Belmont Park in September.

"It kind of makes you a little apprehensive because you don't really know," said two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito, who will saddle Ice Box and Jackson Bend. "That's the hard part. You want a fast track. I don't have any barometer to tell if (they will handle an off track). You just don't know. I'm positive they'll like it, but you just don't know."

When Sunland Derby winner Endorsement was injured and forced to scratch Wednesday, it opened the door for long shots Make Music for Me and Backtalk to get into the field.

Though some of the horses have better credentials than others, recent history has shown that the unexpected can happen.

"It's very competitive, but I think, in my opinion, there are really only five or six horses that really, really fit," said Lukas, who will aim for his fifth Derby win with Grade I winner Dublin. "Of course, I say that and a (2009 Derby winner) Mine That Bird or (2005 winner) Giacomo shows up."

When: 5:24 p.m. today (race No. 11).

Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

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TV: KVLY (GF Channel 11, beginning at 3 p.m.).

Distance: 1¼ miles.

Purse: $2,185,200 (if 20 start). First place: $1,425,200. Second place: $400,000. Third place: $200,000. Fourth place: $100,000. Fifth place: $60,000.

Remaining Triple Crown schedule: Preakness Stakes, May 15; Belmont Stakes, June 5.

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