After Fierceness, Sierra Leone, It's A Wide Open Kentucky Derby

Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone

Fate has not been kind to Mike Repole in the Kentucky Derby. The outspoken owner is 0 for 7, although he is perhaps best known for his two champions that never made the starting gate.

In 2011, Uncle Mo was scratched the day before the race because of a gastrointestinal infection. Last year, Forte was scratched the morning of the race due to a bruised right front foot.

Now, the self-made billionaire from Queens, New York, is back with Fierceness, the morning-line favourite for Saturday's 150th Derby. The bay colt was last year's 2-year-old champion and is coming off a 13 1/2-length win in the Florida Derby.

Fierceness will have to overcome a bit of Derby history: No horse has ever won out of the No. 17 post.

"The horse is just a different kind. He does everything so easy, so calm, so cool," said Repole, known for his high energy and using his account on X as an incubator for racing reform and challenging critics. "A horse like this calms me down."

A sharp-dressed crowd of about 150,000 is expected to jam Churchill Downs to wager and watch the 1 1/4-mile Derby. Post time is 6:57 p.m. EDT. The forecast calls for 79 degrees (26 Celsius) and a 40% chance of showers.

Fierceness is trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by John Velazquez, who have won a combined five derbies.

"I hope it doesn't take as long as it took the Cubs to win the World Series," Repole said of his efforts to bag one.

Like Repole, trainer Chad Brown is 0 for 7. He will saddle early 3-1 second choice Sierra Leone, who is known as a closer, and long shot Domestic Product. Sierra Leone is the priciest horse in the field, having cost $2.3 million.

Besides Brown, trainers Brad Cox and Danny Gargan have two entries apiece.

Louisville-born Cox won his first Derby belatedly when Mandaloun was elevated to first place after Medina Spirit's disqualification nine months after the 2021 race. Now he has early 8-1 third choice Catching Freedom and 10-1 co-fourth choice Just a Touch, who didn't race at age 2 like his sire, 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify.

Gargan's long-shot duo is Dornach and Society Man. Front-running Dornach breaks from the No. 1 post for co-owner and retired Philadelphia Phillies star Jayson Werth.

"Hopefully he'll break running and we'll put him on the front end and see how it goes," Gargan said. "We planned on keeping his face clean. Now we'll keep it real clean."

Society Man is ridden by Frankie Dettori, who is back in the Derby at age 53 after 24 years.

Larry Demeritte is just the second Black trainer since 1951 to take a shot at winning the Derby. The 74-year-old who has fought cancer for several years will saddle the star of his 11-horse stable, West Saratoga, a colt that cost $11,000.

"My motto is, 'I don't buy cheap horses, I buy good horses cheap,'" he said.

Japan is represented by early 10-1 shot Forever Young (winner of five straight starts) and 30-1 shot T O Password. No horse from that country has ever won the Derby.

A year ago, two horses died on Derby day at Churchill Downs, where a total of 12 horses died in the weeks surrounding the race. The historic track has deepened its dirt racing surface and added to its safety protocols in an effort to prevent more tragedy.

Last May, Churchill Downs suspended trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. after two of his horses died and it scratched his Derby horse, Lord Miles. He is back this week with Catalytic.

Six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert is not. The trainer had his two-year suspension for Medina Spirit's failed drug test in 2021 extended to a third year by Churchill Downs despite not having any further medication violations.

Four-time winner D Wayne Lukas saddled long shot Just Steel, ridden by Keith Asmussen, the son of trainer Steve Asmussen. The elder Asmussen entered Track Phantom in an effort to stop his 0 for 25 skid in the Derby.


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