LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Trying to pick a winner in this 19-horse Kentucky Derby field where only one horse has come even close to distinguishing himself from the others is proving frustrating.
Picking a horse to root for, however, is easy. Everywhere you turn is another heartwarming storyline. Some are racing for worthy causes. Others have connections whose stories of perseverance or good fortune are moving. Here are the top choices for feel-good winners, should they be able to navigate their way to the Winner's Circle.
1. CALIFORNIA CHROME. What's this? Nobody roots for the favorite, right? California Chrome is a different story. His trainer, Art Sherman, will be the star heading into this race. Sherman's last touch with the Derby was in 1955, with the eventual winner, Swaps. Well, with him in a sense. He was one of Swaps' exercise riders. He was 18 years old, and said that when they took the winner's circle picture of the Derby champion, he wasn't even in it. If California Chrome were to do the expected and win it, how much better does the story get than a trainer who gets the big race after seven decades in the business? "None of this makes any sense," Sherman said outside his Churchill Downs barn this week. "Things like this just don't happen."
But in the Kentucky Derby, they do.
Then there are the owners, newcomers to the game who got the name of their racing operation from an offhanded comment by a groom -- who said anyone who would buy a horse they were getting ready to purchase was a dumb-ass. They call themselves Dumb-Ass Partners. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin aren't silver-spoon guys. They entered the sport small, and have a chance to make it big. The first horse out of their new partnership is, yep, California Chrome. When they were offered more than $6 million for their colt -- which comes into the Derby with four straight wins of five lengths or better -- they didn't have to think long before turning it down. They put in the work, they want to smell the roses, if they can win them. And should they win them, they'd no doubt serve as an inspiration for others looking to get into the game.
2. UNCLE SIGH. Owner Chip McEwen changed the name of his racing operation to Wounded Warrior Stables and adorned his silks with a purple heart against a yellow field. You need more than that? McEwen since has used his passion for racing to try to bring awareness to the debt this nation owes its wounded warriors. He has pledged at least 10 percent of his winnings to organizations that serve wounded veterans. At the Derby on Saturday, McEwen will host a family who lost their son in Iraq, and a solider who lost both his legs in Afghanistan. Wounded Warrior Stables is not a newcomer. McEwen has been at this for 20 years. If Uncle Sigh brings it home, you can cue the music and reach for the hankies.
3. RIDE ON CURLIN. It hasn't been too long ago that Dan and Lori Dougherty were in the furniture business in Louisville. They bought Ride On Curlin for the bargain-basement price of $25,000. The son of Curlin had a turned-in front hoof. But there's nothing wrong with the way he has run. Doughterly was recently offered more than $1 million for the colt, but turned it down.
His trainer, "Bronco" Bill Gowan has three horses in his stable, including his Derby contender, and one of them hasn't won a race. He's won just 80 times in 25 years of training. But he has kept at it, because he loves it. He and his wife Tracy are well-liked on the Churchill Downs backside. They live just outside Shepherdsville, Ky. In winters, he lives in a mobile home at Oaklawn. He represents the little guy, if anyone ever did in this race, people who make it work in this business, build a life they enjoy, and rarely get noticed outside of their own racing community -- unless they get a horse to the Kentucky Derby. He was up against it when Ride On Curlin came along. But just at that moment when he didn't know where his next break in the business would come from, his biggest break came.
Calvin Borel will ride the colt. And of course, everybody feels good when Borel wins.
4. MEDAL COUNT. In the lifetime achievement award category, no trainer would be a more welcome addition to the Kentucky Derby collection of winners than Dale Romans. He grew up in Louisville, at Churchill Downs, literally, at the barn of his father, which he took over. He used to cut class and catch a bus to Churchill to help his dad at the track. Since striking out on his own, he has won just about everything -- the Dubai World Cup, four Breeders' Cup races and the Preakness. Romans has long since established himself as a major player in the business. Most people will tell you that he'll break through and win a Kentucky Derby someday, it's just a matter of when. You can count on this: There's not a trainer at the track for whom winning the Kentucky Derby would mean more.
5. WICKED STRONG. Massachusetts-based Centennial Farms has been in operation for 30 years and won the 1993 Belmont with Colonial Affair but never produced a Kentucky Derby starter, until Wicked Strong. After buying the colt named Moyne Spun last year, Don Little Jr. of Centennial wanted to name the colt "Boston Strong," in honor of the victims of last year's Boston Marathon bombings. When that name was taken, he settled on changing the name to Wicked Strong, giving the colt a definite Boston flavor. He has pledged a portion of its winnings to the One Fund, which was established after the bombings to help those most affected by the tragedy. "To win, and to celebrate the memory of those victims and bring awareness?" Little said. "I can't tell you what it would mean."
6. CANDY BOY. Gary Stevens doesn't have anything left to win. But after returning to the sport at age 50 after seven years in the broadcast booth, he still added wins in the Preakness Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic last year. A win in the Kentucky Derby could cap what already is one of the more remarkable comebacks in all of sports.
"It's America's race. It's my favorite race," he said. "I've had success in it. Hopefully I've got another one in me. I'm expecting to finish first. That's what I'm here for. I think, probably because of my time away from the saddle, I appreciate it a little more. . . . A year ago, I didn't know how long I'd last. So every day now is a blessing. To get back here, it's great."
7. VICAR'S IN TROUBLE or WE MISS ARTIE. Ken and Sarah Ramsey, likewise, have won just about everything in sight. The Ramseys have been claiming champions and won 13 track championships at Churchill Downs. But they love the Derby. When Sarah Ramsey suffered a serious stroke in 2007, Ken seemed to intensify his efforts to be a part of the big race. Vicar's In Trouble got a bad break when he drew the rail, but will move out one spot to the No. 2 post because of the 19-horse field, getting a little breathing room. We Miss Artie was named for the husband of one of Sarah Ramsey's cousins. "We know he's going to be a really good turf horse," Ramsey said. "But I entered him here because he earned the right to be here, and we love the Derby. And you never know." If Ramsey wins the Derby, and he deserves to, his post-race comments will be some for the ages.
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