4. Funny Cide meets Smarty Jones.
Two years ago the Kentucky Derby was won by Funny Cide, whose group of everyman owners paid $75,000 for the horse and took the racing world on a rollicking ride through a victory in the Preakness and a Triple Crown near miss in the Belmont. Last year the Derby was won by Smarty Jones, a horse with modest roots from Philadelphia who took the racing world on a rollicking ride through a victory in the Preakness and a Triple Crown near miss in the Belmont.
This year the racing gods have produced Afleet Alex (above), purchased last spring by a Philadelphia-based syndicate of five everyman owners for, you guessed it, $75,000. Alex, named for the children of three of the owners, was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall in Dallas, where his owners partied with the Funny Cide gang. "We became good friends," says Chuck Zacney, who heads up Cash is King LLC, Afleet Alex's ownership group. "They're big Alex fans." After an eight-length romp in the Arkansas Derby, Alex should also have no shortage of fans at the Churchill Downs betting windows.
5. It's a rider's race.
Twenty horses break from the gate in front of 140,000 roaring spectators, each jockey looking to avoid traffic problems and find the elusive perfect trip. "You've probably got 15 horses who all want to be in the same spot on the racetrack," says three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. It's an intensely pressurized experience for veteran jockeys and a sensory explosion for Derby rookies such as Castellano (above) and Jeremy Rose, who will ride Afleet Alex.
Before becoming a jockey some six years ago, Rose, 26, was a talented 103-pound high school wrestler and Penn State football fan in Bellefonte, Pa. "Balance, strength, competitiveness, you need them all in both wrestling and riding," Rose says. He has improved steadily and won the riding title at Oaklawn Park this year, but being aboard a Derby contender raises the stakes. (Inexperience, it should be noted, didn't keep Derby rookie Stewart Elliott from winning on Smarty Jones a year ago.)
6. Do not enter.
Some horses don't belong in the Derby, but some owners and trainers can't resist. Two cases in point: Going Wild, trained by Lukas, has lost his last two races by more than 57 lengths, yet he is expected to start. "I'm going to rely on my 25 years of experience and think I'm O.K.," says Lukas (left). Spanish Chestnut was sixth in two prep races and hasn't won since January. There's an ulterior motive to start him. He is owned by Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, the same pair that owns Bandini, and he's in the race to press the pace and soften up the likes of Bellamy Road. Derby fever takes all forms.
7. Just enough room.
B. Wayne Hughes, the billionaire founder of Public Storage, is expected to have two starters in the race, although he had to sweat things out. Illinois Derby winner Greeley's Galaxy is trained by 83-year-old Warren Stute (right), who stopped galloping horses only when he suffered a minor stroke two years ago. ("And I wasn't happy about it," he says.) Don't Get Mad romped in the Derby Trial last Saturday at Churchill Downs.