The Kentucky Derby is nothing without human interest stories. For all the majesty and beauty that comes with watching a horse gallop down the track for the most exciting two minutes in sports, we need something to hold onto. To grasp our interest in the waning weeks between the Run for the Roses and the Preakness Stakes.
Until we perfect human-to-horse vocal communication technology, that intrigue largely comes from the people inside the horse's stable. California Chrome isn't giving reporters a soundbite. Nor is a horse's three-year journey nearly as relatable as a late-70s trainer with little proven on this national stage attempting to win his first Kentucky Derby.
This is an inherently weird process. For everything the humans do inside this sport, it is really the horses who are the athletes. Yet the most famous face in horse racing is probably Bob Baffert—or an inanimate object like Churchill Downs itself. So what makes the concept of horse racing so unique?
Nowhere else in sports are the coaches and administrators the stars and the athletes secondary figures, paid in the form of housing, food and a beautiful environment. (Oh. Except in the NCAA. My bad.)
When you get past the weirdness of it all, though, there are plenty of stories worth telling in this field. Whether it's California Chrome or any one of the field's other favorites that come up with the victory Saturday, you'll find something worth discussing. Or, if not, Floyd Mayweather is fighting later that night anyway.
But here's a look in the interim at a few notable jockey and pedigree notes for the field's favored horses.
California Chrome (5-2)
Jockey: Victor Espinoza
Pedigree: Lucky Pulpit, Love The Chase by Not For Love
California Chrome is noteworthy mostly because of how un-noteworthy his upbringing was. The colt does not come from a lineage of high-profile breeding, nor was he expected to become a Kentucky Derby-worthy horse. There is not some multimillion conglomerate in his corner, filled with trophies of years past.
California Chrome might be the most unlikely favorite in recent memory.
The horse is trained by Art Sherman, a 77-year-old former jockey whose career has been spent mostly toiling in the middle tier. He has never trained a Kentucky Derby horse prior to California Chrome. Sherman's most noteworthy experience at Churchill Downs came when he was the exercise rider for Swaps, the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner. Even the state from which California Chrome is from—spoiler: It's California—is not a typical breeding ground for Kentucky Derby winners.
For a favorite, the historical odds are not in California Chrome's favor. He has a jockey in Victor Espinoza who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes atop War Emblem in 2002. He also has a jockey in Victor Espinoza who has finished outside the top 20 in jockey earnings five times in the last six years and has barely had any meaningful wins not atop California Chrome since 2008.
Much of the talk coming into Saturday's race will be about the horse's dominant performances this year. There has been no better-looking horse in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby. Maybe, if California Chrome becomes the second straight favorite to win in Louisville, we'll get to discuss how unbelievably unlikely this all was.
Wicked Strong (13-2)
Jockey: Rajiv Maragh
Pedigree: Hard Spun, Moyne Abbey by Charismatic
Given the top two favorites before the post draw, the 2014 Kentucky Derby may be the year of the non-favorites getting their chance to shine. Wicked Strong's rise through the ranks isn't nearly as surprising as that of California Chrome. Any time Charismatic is mentioned as part of a horse's lineage—as it is with Wicked Strong—we're talking about a thoroughbred that has been properly kept through the years.
As most know, Charismatic is one of the closest Triple Crown calls we've had since Affirmed in 1978. After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he held a lead going to the final stretch run at the Belmont before running out of gas.
Like Charismatic before him, Wicked Strong comes from a bit of an underdog place nonetheless. He was a 9-1 dog at the Wood Memorial before shocking the world with a dominant victory that put him in the favorites conversation for Saturday's race. Unlike Charismatic, though, there is no legendary D. Wayne Lukas around to call the shots.
Trainer James A. Jerkens has never won a Triple Crown race. His most notable wins in the most famous American races came at the Breeders' Cup, where he hasn't taken home a trophy since 2007. While his father, H. Allen Jerkens, was one of the more successful trainers of his time, James' most notable accomplishments arguably came with Quality Road—a pre-race Derby favorite that bowed out with injuries.
Jockey Rajiv Maragh, just 28, has also never tasted Triple Crown glory in his young career. He rode Mucho Macho Man to a third-place finish in 2011 but is still largely establishing himself among the world's best young jockeys. If there is anything going for him other than Wicked Strong, it's been that Maragh is and has been a top-20 jockey for going on a half-decade now.
Could this finally be his time to reach his peak?
Jockey: Joe Bravo
Pedigree: Street Boss, Champagne Royale by French Deputy
If you're looking for a traditional power structure story, perhaps Danza will satiate the need. The three-year-old colt, who has only raced four times due to injuries suffered last year, is trained by none other than the legendary Todd A. Pletcher.
Pletcher's long and storied history of coming oh-so-close without a win at Churchill Downs came to a close in 2010, and he currently holds a trophy in all three Triple Crown races. The most recent, of course, came in our last Triple Crown race, when Palace Malice won the 2013 Belmont Stakes in what was deemed a major surprise. Pletcher is quite possibly the best trainer in the business at this very moment.
Beyond the trainer rest some question marks. Jockey Joe Bravo is among the winningest jockeys of his generation, but none of his wins have come at any of the the sport's highest events. Bravo's biggest victories came during a period of complete dominance of New Jersey-based tracks—many of which were a large step down compared to this stage. If there is anything going in his favor, though, it's that headline writers will never have an easier time writing a winning headline than by merely switching around his first and last names.
It's the small things in life.
French Deputy isn't remembered in the same way as Charismatic, but it's possible he could have been. Injuries kept him off the track during his three-year-old season in 1995, a disappointment that still lingers to this day. French Deputy is one of those horses you sit back and wistfully wonder "what if?" about—especially during that 1995 Derby season.
The lingering injury issues for Danza, then, are no more comforting. But assuming he's able to make it through the weekend without a setback, two firsts and two thirds in his four career races make it clear Danza is for real. As long as he stays upright.
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