1. California drought: A California-bred horse has not won the Derby since Decidedly in 1962, and only two others – Morvich in 1922 and Swaps in 1955 – have won in 139 runnings. Favorite California Chrome – Swaps’ great-great-great-great-grandson – will try to end that 52-year drought.
2. Kentucky’s edge: A horse born outside Kentucky hasn’t won the Derby since Pennsylvania’s Smarty Jones in 2004, and 106 Derby winners were born in the Bluegrass State. Of Saturday’s 20 starters, 13 were born in Kentucky, the fewest in many years. Besides the aptly named California Chrome (born in Coalinga), the others hail from New York (Samraat and Uncle Sigh), Louisiana (Vicar’s In Trouble), Florida (Dance With Fate and Wildcat Red) and Ontario, Canada (We Miss Artie).
3. Smelling roses: What would the Run for the Roses be without roses? The garland that blankets the winner weighs 40 pounds and holds 564 identical red roses in a design unchanged since 1932. On top of the garland is a “crown” of 19 more roses, one for each starter in this race.
4. Strength in numbers: Todd Pletcher will start four horses Saturday : Arkansas Derby winner Danza, Intense Holiday, Vinceremos and We Miss Artie. But the six-time Eclipse winner as the nation’s top trainer has had little Derby success; he’s 1 for 36. His lone winner was Super Saver in 2010.
5. Beginner’s luck: Six trainers will saddle their first Derby starter: Art Sherman (California Chrome), Peter Eurton (Dance With Fate), Gary Contessa (Uncle Sigh), Jimmy Jerkins (Wicked Strong), Jose Garoffalo (Wildcat Red) and Billy Gowan (Ride On Curlin). Sherman, 77, will attempt to become the oldest trainer to win the Derby; at 76, Charlie Whittingham won the 1989 Derby with Sunday Silence.
6. California connections: Besides California Chrome, the field includes two other California horses, Dance With Fate and Candy Boy. Dance With Fate, second to Tamarando in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, won the Blue Grass Stakes in his final Derby prep. The near-black colt is owned by Sharon Alesia (ex-wife of musician/record producer Herb Alpert), Joe Ciaglia (he builds skateboard parks) and Michael Mellen’s Bran Jam Stable. Candy Boy, third behind California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby, is owned and bred by Lee and Susan Searing’s CRK Stable of Claremont.
7. Experience counts: Pletcher and Bob Baffert (1997, 1998 and 2002) are the only trainers who have won the Derby. Baffert had to scratch Hoppertunity because of a sore foot, but he still has Sunland Derby winner Chitu, named for an ancient Chinese war horse. Coincidentally, this is the Chinese Year of the Horse. Among the jockeys, five have won the Derby: Gary Stevens (Candy Boy), Victor Espinoza (California Chrome), Joel Rosario (General A Rod), John Velasquez (Intense Holiday) and Calvin Borel (Ride On Curlin). Stevens and Borel, both in racing’s Hall of Fame, have won three Derbies each. At the other extreme, Corey Nakatani (Dance With Fate) holds the record for most Derby rides without a win at 16.
8. Boston big: Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, the second favorite in Saturday’s race, originally was named Moyne Spun, but was renamed in honor of victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. (“Boston Strong” was already taken.) Purchased for $375,000 as a yearling, Wicked Strong is owned by 28 mostly Massachusetts-based partners, including 20 first-time horse owners. A share of the horse’s earnings go to the One Fund to aid the bombing’s victims and families.
9. New voice: Announcer Larry Collmus will make his Derby debut as the official race caller of Churchill Downs. If his voice sounds familiar, thank NBC; he called the race for TV the past three years. His most familiar catch phrase? For a runaway winner, he’ll be “running up the score.”
10. Triple Crown trail: The Derby is the first jewel of racing’s Triple Crown before the Preakness in Baltimore on May 17 and the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y., on June 7. Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown; the last was Affirmed in 1978. Las Vegas oddsmakers doubt Saturday’s Derby winner will sweep; the odds that the Triple Crown drought will continue are 1-12.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.