Horses, trainers ready for 140th Kentucky Derby
The garland of red roses. The solid gold trophy. An estimated payday of $1.24 million.
All those spoils await the winner of the 140th Kentucky Derby to be run on May 3 at Churchill Downs in Louisville. A full field of 20 3-year-olds is expected for the 1¼-mile race, and most of them will be running the distance for the first time.
Packing the stands and the infield will be upward of 150,000 people, many of whom come for the party atmosphere, the wagering and to possibly see a live horse or two. They’ll dress to the nines in fancy suits and dresses topped off by a mix of elegant, huge and outrageous hats. New this year to the track is a $12 million high-definition video board that measures 171-feet wide by 90-feet tall and will show the day’s races and other entertainment.
Here are 10 things to know about the Derby:
Trainer Todd Pletcher has four probable starters in pursuit of his second Derby victory. They are: Arkansas Derby winner Danza; Risen Star winner Intense Holiday; Spiral Stakes winner We Miss Artie; and Vinceremos, who was 14th in the Blue Grass. Mike Maker could saddle three horses: Vicar’s in Trouble, General a Rod and Harry’s Holiday. Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, could start two: Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity and Sunland Derby winner Chitu.
The field of 20 horses is announced on Wednesday. That’s when the draw is held to determine spots in the starting gate. Some trainers want to avoid the No. 1 post because their horse starts next to the rail and could get pinched going into the first turn. Others don’t like the No. 20 post because their horse is on the far outside and has to quickly make its way over toward the rail to save ground going into the first turn. Last year’s winner, Orb, broke from the No. 15 post. The odds are set on draw day, too. Expected to be among the mix is Tapiture, the Southwest Stakes winner, who is trained by Gettysburg native Steve Asmussen. He’s under investigation after an animal rights group alleged mistreatment by him and a former assistant. Asmussen’s nomination to the Racing Hall of Fame was put on hold last month in the wake of the allegations.
California Chrome is expected to be the favorite based on the dominating form he’s shown on the West Coast. The colt has won his last four races by a combined 24¼ lengths, including the Santa Anita Derby. He beat Hopportunity and Candy Boy in that race, two rivals he’s likely to face again in Louisville. He’s trained by Art Sherman and ridden by Victor Espinoza, who won the Derby in 2002.
For the second straight year, the field of 20 starters is being determined by points. Churchill Downs instituted a tiered system that awards a sliding scale of points to the top four finishers in 34 designated races. The top 20 point earners at the end of the series will earn a spot in the Derby starting gate if more than 20 horses enter. The field has been limited to 20 horses since 1975. At least that many have entered every year since 2004, and 13 of the last 15 years.
Hoppertunity didn’t race as a 2-year-old, setting him up for a chance to break one of the Derby’s oldest jinxes: no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without racing at 2. “I had him entered in a race at 2 and scratched him because I had another one there,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “He was ready to run, so that should count.”
Besides the 20 horses which make the Derby, four more can also be entered. They would have until the morning of May 2 to get into the race if any horses are scratched by then.
Five horses are tied for the 20th and last spot on the points leaderboard with 20 each. Harry’s Holiday would be the last horse to get in because he has highest earnings in non-restricted stakes races, which is the tiebreaker. The other horses with 20 points are Commanding Curve, Pablo Del Monte, Bayern and Social Inclusion.
Art Sherman has the best horse of his career with California Chrome. At 77, he could become the oldest trainer to win, breaking the record of Charlie Whittingham, who was 76 when he won in 1989 with Sunday Silence. Sherman has done it all in the business. He was a jockey for 21 years, a racing official and then became a trainer in 1980. He has won over 2,100 races.
Larry Collmus is the new race caller at Churchill Downs. He has announced the Derby the last three years on the NBC telecast, but this will be the first year that his voice is heard by fans at the track and TV viewers. He also announces races at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
A horse has just one shot to win the Triple Crown because the Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes is restricted to 3-year-olds. Only 11 horses have swept the series and none since Affirmed in 1978. The feat begins with a victory in the Derby, followed by wins in the other races over a five-week span. Fifty horses have finished one win shy of the Triple, including I’ll Have Another in 2012.