Post positions were being drawn for the Breeders' Cup Classic and only three spots remained. Two of the horses without an assignment were the two favorites, defending champion Arrogate and Gun Runner.
Would one of them get the dreaded rail?
Arrogate's name was selected. "No. 1," was the call.
A groan could be heard inside the pavilion at Del Mar's Powerhouse Park, where post positions for all 13 Breeders' Cup races this weekend at Del Mar were drawn Monday.
But if jockey Mike Smith was concerned, he kept it to himself.
"If you go back and look," Smith said, "probably his best two races, the Travers [August 2016] and the Pegasus [January 2017], he was in the one-hole. I learned a long time ago a real good horse makes a bad post a good one. We'll see what happens."
One thing is certain: Smith won't have to spend a lot of time thinking about strategy.
"I'll be aggressive leaving there," he said. "I've got to get position. I'll ride him hard, like I did in the Travers, and see where that puts me. If I can get right behind the first group [of pacesetters] I'll be happy with that."
Gun Runner, the 9-5 morning-line favorite after winning three consecutive races by a total of 22½ lengths, figures to be one of those pacesetters out of the No. 5 post. He'll have company from Collected, like Arrogate a member of trainer Bob Baffert's record quartet of starters in the race. Collected, who is on the outside of the 11-horse field, won the Pacific Classic in August by racing gate to wire.
"I like being on the outside better, but I've got a lot of good horses on the outside," said Baffert, who also has Mubtaahij (No. 6) and West Coast (No. 8) in the field. "It will all work out. They are spread out everywhere. It was a good draw for Collected. West Coast is in a good spot there."
Arrogate, who will be retired to stud after Saturday's race, was the runner-up in the Pacific Classic, his second consecutive loss after defeating Gun Runner in the Dubai World Cup. The Dubai race was the last of his seven consecutive victories, a stretch that included the Travers, Breeders' Cup Classic and Pegasus World Classic.
Is the 4-year-old as good now as he was at this time last year, when he beat California Chrome in the Classic at Santa Anita?
"He's training like it. He really is," Smith said.
Smith also has experience winning the Classic from the No. 1 post. He did it in 1997 at Hollywood Park aboard Skip Away, who was on near the lead throughout. Two other horses have won the Classic from the rail: Ghostzapper, who led the entire race in 2004, and Awesome Again, who came from well back in 1998.
There also have been three Pacific Classics won from the rail at the same 1¼-mile distance as Saturday's race, most recently California Chrome in 2016. He led from gate to wire, as did Bertrando in 1993. General Challenge, the other winner from the inside post, was never more than 3½ lengths off the pace while winning in 1999.
Arrogate is one of five defending champions trying to repeat in the same race, and only one is favored: Drefong at 7-2 in the Sprint. The others are Finest City, 12-1 in the Filly & Mare Sprint; Queen's Trust, 12-1 in the Filly & Mare Turf; and Highland Reel, 5-1 in the Turf.
The post-position draw for the Sprint also was closely watched, and the Baffert-Smith combo couldn't have liked like what they saw in that one. Drefong, who took a sharp left turn and unseated Smith shortly after leaving the gate from the No. 2 post in the July 29 Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar, received the same post for the Sprint.
"I wanted to be outside with him because he had that bad experience earlier in the summer," Baffert said. "… But he had the two-hole last year [in the Sprint] and I was fretting about that until he won the race."
Seven of the 13 races Friday and Saturday attracted full fields, and every race has at least 10 runners except the Distaff, which has eight. Stellar Wind drew the No. 2 post for the 11/8-mile race and was installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite over the 3-year-old Elate (3-1). This will be Stellar Wind's third straight appearance in the Distaff; she was second in 2015 and fourth last year. Her trainer, John Sadler, is 0-39 in Breeders' Cup races.
The complete list of morning-line favorites, in the order the races will be run (the first four are Friday): Rushing Fall (Juvenile Fillies Turf, 7-2), Mor Spirit (Dirt Mile, 3-1), Masar (Juvenile Turf, 9-2), Stellar Wind (Distaff, 5-2), Moonshine Memories (Juvenile Fillies, 7-2), Lady Aurelia (Turf Sprint, 5-2), Unique Bella (Filly & Mare Sprint, 9-5), Lady Eli (Filly & Mare Turf, 5-2), Drefong (Sprint, 5-2), Ribchester (Mile, 7-2), Bolt d'Oro (Juvenile, 9-5), Ulysses (Turf, 7-2) and Gun Runner (Classic, 9-5).