This year's Kentucky Derby will feature a most unusual cast of characters.
And why not?
After arguably the wackiest Derby prep season ever, not one 3-year-old has stepped forward to dominate the division. So when entries are taken in a few days for Saturday's race, a full field of 20 horses is a certainty, many of them uniquely distinctive.
Among this oddball collection of colts -- so far, there's not a gelding or filly to be found -- is one blind in his right eye (Pollard's Vision), another with partial vision in an eye (Imperialism), and another who recovered from a fractured skull (Smarty Jones).
For those who appreciate a catchy moniker, try the colt named for a tennis tournament (Wimbledon), or an Equibase chart caller (The Cliff's Edge), or a 1920s jazz tune (Limehouse).
And then there are the amazing grays, three of 'em right now, trained by an intriguing group: Three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert has Wimbledon; 21-year-old Kristin Mulhall, trying to become the youngest trainer -- and first female trainer -- to win the Derby, conditions Imperialism; and Englishman Michael Dickinson has his first Derby horse in Tapit, winner of the Wood Memorial.
Pro Prado, another gray, might end up in the field, while the gray Value Plus is doubtful but hasn't been ruled out. Preachinatthebar, a gray son of Silver Charm, was pulled out Thursday by Baffert.
Only five grays have won the Derby, including Silver Charm in 1997 and Monarchos in 2001.
"It's wide open," Dickinson said. "Whoever wins is going to have to show improvement from the last time."
The buildup to this Derby will be quite different from last year. Empire Maker was the clear-cut favorite off prep victories in the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial, and drew most of the media attention in the week leading up to the race.
But as often is the case in America's greatest race, the favorite faltered. Last year, the unexpected winner was Funny Cide, the first gelding since 1929 and first New York bred ever to take the Derby. Since Spectacular Bid's victory in 1979, the only other Derby favorite to win was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.
The only thing that seems certain about the 1 1/4-mile Derby is that Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas won't be there. The four-time Derby winner has saddled at least one starter in 22 of the past 23 Derbies.
Two-time Derby winning trainer Nick Zito returns after a two-year absence and has the likely favorite in The Cliff's Edge. Named for Equibase chart caller Cliff Guilliams, "Cliffy" won the Blue Grass at Keeneland April 10, and is 2 for 2 at
"He loves the track," Zito said. The trainer also will send out Birdstone, who finished a dull sixth in the Lane's End Stakes last month and missed the Blue Grass with an elevated white blood cell count.
Bobby Frankel, who will saddle Master David in his quest for his first Derby win, says The Cliff's Edge is the horse to beat "because he ran fast and he ran good at Churchill as a 2-year-old. We know he likes the track."
Certainly not to be overlooked is Smarty Jones, who recovered from a skull fracture in a starting gate mishap before he even raced. The Pennsylvania bred is trying to become the first unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977.