Aaron Sones always turns off his cellphone at night. But Sunday night, while he and his family were on vacation in Hawaii, he kept it on. He had a feeling.
Sones, a former emergency room doctor, likes to dabble in horse racing ownership and one of his horses, Ethereal Road, was on the bubble of making the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. He was on standby while currently ranking 21st in qualifying. All he needed was one more horse to drop out.
Then at 3:30 a.m. the phone rang. It was trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I guess we got in the Derby,’” Sones said. “I answered the phone and Wayne said, ‘We’re in.’”
Ethereal Road made the field courtesy of Un Ojo dropping out. The news came shortly before Monday’s draw for Saturday’s 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
With a 20-horse field, the draw is always of interest. You don’t want to be too close to the rail or too far outside.
Mo Donegal, at 10-1 morning-line odds, drew the first position for trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.
“The new gate” that keeps the inside horses further from the rail “should work to Mo Donegal’s advantage,” Pletcher said. “He’s got some experience in there. He just won the Wood Memorial from the one hole. He’s used to having dirt in his face and I’d hope that Irad could save some ground around that first turn and get us in a good spot.”
As for the 20th starting position, that belongs to Ethereal Road (30-1).
This is the third trip to the Derby with a horse for Sones, who lives in Los Angeles. In 2016, he did the unthinkable and qualified a maiden, Trojan Nation, and brought him to Churchill Downs. He drew the one and was pushed into the rail and finished 16th.
“I was joking with Wayne before we got in the race that getting the 20 would be a lot better,” Sones said. “Actually, it’s just what we wanted for a come-from-behinder. If you watch his running style, he likes to stay outside.”
That’s likely where he’ll be for a good part of the 1¼-mile race.
The biggest surprise of Monday’s draw was that Mike Battaglia, who has been making the morning line for the Derby since 1975, chose Zandon (3-1) over Epicenter (7-2) as the favorite. Zandon will break from the 10th gate, while Epicenter will leave from the third.
The blue silk of the 3 post “matches his favorite colors,” said Epicenter trainer Steve Asmussen, whose barn color and saddle towel are blue. “Like any race, you want to get away nicely from the gate and go from there. How long he stands in there, how long it takes to load, 150,000 people staring at him, it’s a lot.”
Chad Brown, the trainer of Zandon, was pithy in his reaction.
“Perfect, we’re ready to go,” he said.
The two major Santa Anita horses, Messier (8-1) and Taiba (12-1), drew the sixth and 12th spots, respectively. They were among the last three horses to get a post position. The draw is a simultaneous pull of a horse’s name and post position number.
“They made us wait,” said trainer Tim Yakteen, who took over the horses from suspended trainer Bob Baffert. “But in the end, we drew well.”
The other Southern California-based horse is Happy Jack (30-1), who drew the No. 2 slot.
“It is good. We’re happy,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “I think that new gate makes it better for the horses inside. We remain optimistic.”
As for Sones, he couldn’t be happier to make the Derby field and gives all the credit to Lukas.
“Being around Wayne has been the greatest horse racing experience of my life,” said Sones, who co-owns the horse with wife Julie Gilbert. “He’s the one that picked out this horse. I told him that if he finds something good, to go ahead and buy it. He found him at the Keeneland sale and we thought he would go for $500,000, $600,000, $700,000.
“But he went for $90,000 and we were in shock. In fact, I called Wayne and said ‘Are you sure? What did we miss?’ I guess he just fell though a hole in the market.”
The starting field can change until 9 a.m. Friday. Rich Strike and Rattle N Roll are called “also eligibles,” the horse racing equivalent of a wait list.
Then the wait grows for 20 horses until the gates open.