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Quality of Kentucky Derby field is off the charts

Exercise rider Joel Barrientos rides Kentucky Derby hopeful

Exercise rider Joel Barrientos rides Kentucky Derby hopeful International Star during a workout at Churchill Downs Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. Credit: AP / Charlie Riedel

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If there's a sure thing in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, it's that the track will be fast. The Weather Channel predicts a high temperature of 76, with no chance of rain. Just about everything else is up in the air, which is why approximately 160,000 will mob Churchill Downs and hundreds of millions around the world will tune in.

There's nothing like the glorious uncertainty of the big race to get the juices flowing, and the 141st edition of this classic has the potential to be among the best in many years.

John Panagot, 29, a former basketball star at Oyster Bay High School, was part of 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom's team. Now he's the racing manager for Robert LaPenta, who co-owns long shot Far Right.

"Have you ever seen a tougher Derby?'' Panagot asked before Wednesday's post-position draw. "There's so much speed, and there's a lot of horses we're going to have to pass.''

Mike Battaglia doesn't think Far Right will pass many of them. He's the Churchill linemaker who set Far Right's morning-line odds at 30-1. American Pharoah, the 5-2 favorite, and undefeated Dortmund, the 3-1 second choice -- both trained by Bob Baffert -- have Battaglia gushing.

"When I saw Dortmund win the Santa Anita Derby [April 4], I thought I was looking at the Derby favorite," Battaglia said. "Then when American Pharoah won the Arkansas Derby [April 11], I was blown away. He looked so good in his workout here that it wasn't hard to make him the favorite.''

Battaglia also is high on the field's overall quality. "I can't recall a Derby with such depth and talent.''

In any other year, trainer Todd Pletcher's Carpe Diem (4-for-5, three stakes victories) would be favored, but thanks to Baffert's potent 1-2 punch, Carpe Diem had odds set at 8-1. His undefeated stablemate Materiality ruled the Florida Derby in only his third start, and he's 12-1. Wood Memorial winner Frosted (15-1) and Louisiana Derby champion International Star (20-1) are other talented runners with inflated odds.

That's because most of the conversation is about Baffert's big boys. The 62-year-old Hall of Famer has three Derby trophies but has been shut out since 2002, going 0-for-12 with two seconds. Baffert was asked how he'd react to a fourth victory. He got laughs when he said, "It's been so long, I've forgotten.''

Behind the one-liners is a yearning to make more history. He's a victory behind Herbert Thompson and D. Wayne Lukas and three away from leader Ben Jones.

"It's incredible,'' Baffert said. "I'm so fortunate. I'm sitting on these two outstanding individuals, so I feel like I'm No. 1 and No. 2 in the draft. I've got [Jameis] Winston and [Marcus] Mariota in the same barn. Something just worked out. I believe in fate and I believe something really good is about to happen, or else it's going to be disappointing.

"Maybe Carpe Diem is better than them. Or somebody else. You don't know. That's why we have this race. It's something we just have to wait to see it happen. Destiny.''

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