Fierceness, Sierra Leone top Kentucky Derby field with Bafftert banned

Kentucky Derby oddsmakers darling Fierceness trains at Churchill Downs ahead of Saturday's 150th "Run for the Roses" (Rob Carr)
Kentucky Derby oddsmakers darling Fierceness trains at Churchill Downs ahead of Saturday's 150th "Run for the Roses" (Rob Carr)

Florida Derby winner Fierceness and Blue Grass Stakes winner Sierra Leone are favored in Saturday's 150th Kentucky Derby, where suspended star trainer Bob Baffert is absent for a third consecutive year.

Fierceness, priced at 5-2, won the Florida Derby by 13.5 lengths but drew post position 17 -- the only Churchill Downs starting gate in 149 years that has never had a Kentucky Derby winner, an 0-for-44 drought.

"I'm fine with the post," Fierceness trainer Todd Pletcher said. "There's enough run into the first turn to hopefully establish position."

Sierra Leone, an early 3-1 choice, will start from the second gate off the rail.

"He's in just a touch farther than I wanted but he didn't get the one hole so I'm OK with that," trainer Chad Brown said. "With this particular horse, what I didn't want is the 19 or 20.

"In fact, it would have been hard for him to drop over without losing ground, significant ground, around the first turn."

The 1 1/4-mile classic is the start of US flat racing's Triple Crown, which includes the Preakness in two weeks and next month's Belmont Stakes.

Notable by his absence will be Baffert, whose six Kentucky Derby winners match Ben Jones for the most by any trainer.

Baffert also has produced 11 other victories in US horse racing's Triple Crown events. He trained the last two horses to complete the coveted treble -- American Pharaoh in 2015 and Justify in 2018.

But the 71-year-old US horseman was suspended for two years in 2021 after Medina Spirit crossed the finish line first at the Derby but failed a post-race drug test and was disqualified, dying later in 2021.

Baffert's ban was scheduled to end last year, but Churchill Downs added another year to the suspension, citing the "continued concerns regarding the threat to the safety and integrity of racing he poses."

Baffert-trained Arkansas Derby winner Muth, owned by Saudi Arabia's Amr Zedan and named for a long-time Baffert backer, was not allowed to enter the Derby even after a legal fight.

While some focus on the talent not in the 20-horse field, the $5 million "Run for the Roses" for three-year-olds still features plenty of mighty contenders.

- Safety still in spotlight -

Louisiana Derby winner Catching Freedom was third in the betting line at 8-1 and will start from gate four while Blue Grass Stakes runner-up Just a Touch, 10-1, starts from the eight post.

"Post positions are pretty overrated in my opinion,” said Brad Cox, who trains both Catching Freedom and Just a Touch. "If you're a good enough horse, you can overcome any post position."

Another 10-1 contender is Japanese-bred Forever Young, which starts from the 11 post.

The horse has won more than $2 million and is unbeaten in five starts, including wins at the UAE Derby and Saudi Derby in his past two starts.

There were 12 equine fatalities last year at Churchill Downs, but the track made extensive safety changes even after an investigation by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) found no one cause for the deaths.

The track has added 2,200 tons of new dirt to provide a greater cushion as well as biometric readings on horses to better track their health.