The contenders in the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby aren't just names on a page, program numbers, or expensive props in America's most famous horse race.
These beautiful Thoroughbreds are fascinating individuals, with idiosyncratic personalities, and unique stories about how they grew up and came of age.
Derby favorite California Chrome was almost in danger of losing his mother, Love the Chase, after his birth at Harris Farms near Coalinga, California. Her uterus was lacerated in the course of delivering "Chrome," her first foal. When blood spilled, connections feared the possibility of a worst-case scenario.
"Initially, we thought that she might be having a uterine artery bleed, which would be a fatal situation," said David McGlothlin, general manager of Harris Farms' Horse Division.
"It was kind of touch and go for a while. We thought that she might be in a lot more serious danger than it was."
With the care and devotion of the veterinary team led by Dr. Jeanne Bowers-Lepore, Love the Chase was nursed back to health, but it took time.
"The injury itself just took time to heal, and took a lot of aftercare from Dr. Guerrero and the staff to make sure that there wasn't permanent damage to the mare and that she could have subsequent foals, which she obviously has," McGlothlin added, referring to a yearling filly and a new foal, both full sisters to Chrome.
"But it was a little dicey for a little while as to what was actually going on with the mare."
During the initial phase of her recovery, she and baby Chrome had to stay in the broodmare barn.
In her condition, Love the Chase "couldn't be out in a field running around and living a normal life," McGlothlin said. "She was probably up for 30-45 days" before she was ready to be turned out in the field and "resume life in normal, everyday fashion."
Because of the special situation with his dam, little Chrome got used to being around people all of the time.
"He was always very interacting with people," McGlothlin recalled, "because the mare was coming out for treatment every day. The treatment would take a while, so he was always interacting with whoever was handling him."
Even in his earliest days, Chrome had an inquisitive personality.
"He was testing his bounds, testing his limits all the time," McGlothlin said. "He was just always very alert and intrigued at what was going on. He was very in tune.
"He was just one of those who was a little more interested in what was going on than the typical foal or yearling."
Sired by a Harris Farms stallion in Lucky Pulpit, California Chrome races for his small-time owner/breeders, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn. The fascinating backstory has been told by Tim Layden in Sports Illustrated, and Jack Shinar of the Blood-Horse has more details on Chrome's babyhood.
"The whole story is a great story," McGlothlin said. "If it becomes a reality on Saturday, it would become a great movie, I'm sure."
Derby rival Intense Holiday himself had an early brush with death. As a newborn, his level of a certain antibody -- immunoglobulin G -- was low, so in keeping with standard veterinary practice, he was given plasma.
Then everything went horribly wrong, recalled his co-breeder, Carrie Brogden of Machmer Hall Farm near Paris, Kentucky.
"He had a terrible reaction (to the plasma), basically collapsed, and his breathing was slowed to almost nothing," Brogden said. "But luckily, we had oxygen in the barn, and the vet had Lasix."
The quick medical response saved the little foal's life. Intense Holiday rallied and made a terrific recovery.
"After his near-death experience when he was a wee babe, he never looked back, never had any sickness, he just never had any issues. He had a great constitution," Brogden said.
"He was always one of the top colts on our farm. He was just always such a nice, forward horse. I know it's kind of cliché-ish, but there was always something a bit more about him."
Intense Holiday caught the eye at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, where he went to his current connections, Starlight Racing, for $380,000.
Machmer Hall also bred Derby contender Vinceremos, another good-looking youngster who now races for WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing.
"Lovely horse," Brogden said of Vinceremos. "Very striking physical, big, strong, easy-walking colt, always very uncomplicated."
Brogden identified "a big common denominator" for all of the graded stakes-caliber runners she has raised: "they all had very good constitutions, and they all had very good immune systems. They weren't constantly being sick, or getting coughs -- very straightforward horses."
Brogden further described her philosophy of raising horses. When baby colts are allowed to engage in their rough-housing style of play, it builds up strong bones -- and minds.
"This is the time where they learn to fight; this is the time where they learn to be strong," Brogden said. "In the end, when they're gutting it out on the track, and there's horses on this side and horses on that side, and they have to go through a small hole, they're going to be used to those tight quarters, and I think that's a good part of becoming a racehorse. I really, truly believe that."
Vicar's in Trouble had a totally different kind of challenge to overcome as a foal.
"The only problem he had in his early life was his mother, Vibrant," said Michele Rodriguez of Elite Thoroughbreds near Folsom, Louisiana, which foaled and raised little "Vicar" for his Kentucky-based breeder, Spendthrift Farm.
Vibrant was a notorious "cribber," a horse who grips things by the teeth and simultaneously sucks in air in huge gulps. Sometimes dubbed "windsucking," cribbing can lead to health problems.
"She was one of the worst cribbers that I have ever encountered. No anti-cribbing apparatus worked on her," Rodriguez said.
"We tried cribbing straps, and all these things, and nothing worked with her. She was horrible. We had to go through all these gyrations. She would crib on a metal gate."
What finally worked was the construction of a special paddock with a thin electrical wire on top of the fence. Powered by solar panels, it would provide a "minor, minor, little shock" -- just enough to dissuade Vibrant from her problematic behavior. This not only protected Vibrant from herself, but also ensured the well-being of baby Vicar.
"If we didn't do this," Rodriguez explained, "she would spend more time on the fence cribbing than eating, and not get enough protein in her system to nurse him, so this was done to protect him also."
Other precautions were still necessary to prevent any opportunity to crib.
"We had to put a garbage can over the water trough and put her feed and water in buckets on the ground," Rodriguez said.
"Vicar was a very good baby only because he had to put up with his mother's nonsense. And in spite of her, he grew up, he's healthy."
Because Vicar's in Trouble had to stay with his dam in her specially-outfitted paddock, he didn't have the opportunity to cavort with all of the other foals in the big field. But Rodriguez made sure to put a couple of other cribbing mares with their foals in the smaller paddock so that "Vicar" wouldn't be isolated.
"We had to get him some friends out there because he was not able to go out in the big, giant pasture with other mares and babies where they could really run all over the place. He was in a more confined area because of her."
Rodriguez went on to describe the developmental phases of the foals, and human parents can probably relate.
"When they're newborns, they stick right by their mothers. And then it's the mother's camaraderie with other mares."
At about the one-month mark, the foals begin to interact more with each other.
"They see the other babies and play with each other, jump around. They'll go off away from their mothers and play -- it's really cute. As they get older, when they're about four months old, they'll just take off on the other side of the field.
"Then the mothers have to go looking for them -- it's like they start ignoring their mothers. And that's why it's kind of easy to wean at around six months because they're all so independent.
"In Kentucky, they wean them at about four months usually, but that's not my thing," Rodriguez concluded. "I like to give them a little bit longer and wait till six months."
Vicar's in Trouble ultimately sold to Ken and Sarah Ramsey for $80,000 as a two-year-old in training at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May Sale.
Although Spendthrift no longer owns Vicar's in Trouble, B. Wayne Hughes' farm has a Derby runner in Medal Count, a $360,000 yearling purchase at Keeneland September.
Medal Count did everything right from the beginning for his breeder, Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings.
"Just always been a straightforward, intelligent, smart, good-looking horse," Stonestreet's Gemma Freeman said. "He deals with everything, takes everything in stride, so hopefully that bodes well for Saturday!"
The handsome Dance With Fate also showed early promise, and apparently had a way with the ladies, so to speak.
"Fate,' as we called him, was always very precocious," recalled Lori Fackler of Best A Luck Farm near Reddick, Florida. "We leave foals together for initial weaning and then separate colts and fillies after they settle down to minimize stress.
"The first afternoon we had weaned, I looked out in the paddock, and there was Fate with a filly that he had by the neck dragging around. He was towering over her, just taking her where he wanted to go -- not mean, just very playful.
"It has been a long-standing joke that my husband (Thomas) had to talk me out of gelding a four-month-old colt!
"Also, he was always the one to get your attention in the field because of his good looks and presence," Fackler added. "From what I hear, that has transferred to his training. Everyone knows who he is when he is on the track."
Dance With Fate sold for $120,000 as a two-year-old in training at OBS last April to Joseph Ciaglia Jr., who campaigns him in partnership with Sharon Alesia and Bran Jam Stable.
My Meadowview's homebred Samraat had a favorite game with his buddies, according to Tawnia MacKenzie of the Watermill, New York, farm.
"Our farrier comes out on a weekly basis, and we would always do all of the babies when they were still with their moms and after they were weaned, out in whatever field they were in.
"When they weren't getting their feet done, they would make big circles around Joe (the farrier), and the circles would get smaller, and then one of them -- and it was always Samraat -- would go up to his shoeing stand and take his rasp and run across the field with the rasp.
"The other ones would be the distraction," MacKenzie said. "He'd get his way through, grab that rasp and take off running."
Although Samraat was "never bossy," the other foals viewed him as their natural leader.
"Once you get them separated and they become weanlings, they all kind of look for a leader," MacKenzie said. "He had the pack around him."
Samraat's personality is summed up by his "barn name" as a baby -- "Cool Hand Luke."
MacKenzie had him pegged as a cool colt from the very night of his birth, which turned out to be a little more eventful than planned.
His dam, Little Indian Girl, "got in not a great position in our foaling stalls, but I wasn't going to get her up, she was ready to have her baby," MacKenzie said. "She had her hind end kind of up in a corner, and her hind legs ended up out of the stall door.
"So when Samraat started coming out, I had to guide him so he wouldn't be smashed up against the corner, so he pretty much came out in my lap -- outside the foaling stall, in the barn alley!
"Once I got him kind of situated, and he was out, she picked up her head and looked out the door, and I said 'Everything's all right, we're right here, here he is!'"
MacKenzie had to maneuver the big baby Samraat, who weighed in at about 130-135 pounds, over the mare's hind legs to get him into the stall. But the classy mare -- a "picture-perfect mom" -- handled the situation with grace and dignity, as did her colt.
"You're just a cool dude," MacKenzie told the newborn Samraat.
And ever since, Samraat has been unflappable.
"It was hard to get his cage rattled," MacKenzie said. "He was very sure of himself. If he got a bad feeling, 'mm-mm, not messing with me,' he let everybody now. The groom really paid attention to that. Not that he was mean or anything, but he definitely was, 'OK, we're gonna do this, you want me to do this, we're going to go about it this way.'"
Samraat's personality as a baby has carried over to the racetrack.
"We all know what he's capable of doing," MacKenzie said. "He's done everything right. You couldn't ask for anything more from him. He does it willingly.
"That's one of the coolest things about him: he does it 'cause he likes it."
New York-bred archrival Uncle Sigh had a best friend at the barn of Danzel Brendemuehl in Ocala, Florida, where he had his early training as a youngster. His deep bond wasn't with a person, or another horse, but with a cat -- an orange tabby with an unusually short tail, by the name of Flash.
"Uncle Sigh loved that cat, loved that cat," Brendemuehl recalled. "They spent a lot of time together," even amid all of the hustle and bustle of a 30-horse barn.
"Flash would park himself outside the door, and Uncle Sigh would blow through the screen at the bottom of the door on him," Brendemuehl said. "If you opened the door, Flash would go in there and Uncle Sigh would nuzzle the top of his head, grab his tail, pick him up with his lips -- never bit him.
"Flash wasn't afraid of him. It's kind of funny, that cat picks horses occasionally, and Uncle Sigh was his pick. Uncle Sigh loved him. Uncle Sigh's such a mellow dude that I was never worried that he'd hurt Flash."
Uncle Sigh races for the partnership of Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony C. Robertson.
Brendemuehl also had a memorable story about Wildcat Red, whom she consigned to last year's OBS June Sale as agent for breeder Moreau Bloodstock International and Winter Racing Enterprise.
Because the sales environment is stressful, Brendemuehl gives all of her sales horses balls to play with in their stalls.
"Some horses play with them a little bit, some horses play with them a lot, some horses are ga-ga for them," Brendemuehl said.
"Wildcat Red was absolutely ga-ga for his stall ball. He was like throwing it out at people. Everybody was cracking up. Eventually we had to limit his time with it because he was playing with it so roughly that I thought he might get hurt -- like go down to his knees and pick it up and throw it. He'd still hang on to it and bang it on the top of his head, and then he'd get mad at it and throw it down and jump on it.
"His was hung up (next to the stall) for a little while, but he was really hurting himself that way, almost thumping himself. We put it down on the ground and he would pick it up and heave it out the door. He just loved it, loved it, loved it. He is a little bit of a busy horse anyway, so that really kept him calm."
At that OBS June Sale, Wildcat Red was purchased by trainer Jose Garoffalo for $30,000, and he sports the colors of Honors Stable Corp.
Danza went to his current owners, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, for $105,000 at Keeneland September. They came up with the apt name for the son of Street Boss -- an allusion to "Who's the Boss" star Tony Danza, who will attend the Derby as their guest to watch his namesake.
Danza represents a culmination for his co-breeder Rob Whiteley of Liberation Farm, who bred the colt in partnership with Brandywine Farm. Whiteley also played a key role in the breeding of his sire, Street Boss.
"I have been a longtime advocate of bringing international bloodlines into our increasingly parochial American world," Whiteley said. "When I was building up Foxfield's commercial breeding operation, I went to Newmarket, England, in December, 1988, and purchased a French race filly named Fruhlingshochzeit and then bred her to Ogygian, producing the filly Blushing Ogygian. Blushing Ogygian in turn produced Street Boss, the sire of Danza."
Whiteley acquired Danza's dam, Champagne Royale, after a lengthy search.
"After searching for five years looking for a daughter of French Deputy that I could afford, I managed to find Champagne Royale and purchased her for Liberation Farm as co-owner with then partners Brandywine Farm.
"I thought mating Street Boss to Champagne Royale would produce a tough, good-boned, well-balanced, speedy miler with the pedigree to stretch that speed beyond eight furlongs. Breeding horses that fit that mold has been my primary objective during 30 years of commercial breeding.
"In this instance, it worked! From the time he drew breath, he has been a solid, strong, well-balanced, tough, no-nonsense and purposeful individual, much like Street Boss and his big, strong momma, Champagne Royale.
"The result was an outstanding individual who looked like a miler with speed and obviously, given the way he finished and was drawing away in the Arkansas Derby, Danza can carry his speed beyond a mile and an eighth.
"As we know from having children as well as breeding horses, the gene pool is deep. In any event, my trip to Newmarket has produced quite a legacy."
Candy Boy had a similarly professional profile in his baby days at Foxtale. The Nicholasville, Kentucky, farm raised the colt for owner/breeders Lee and Susan Searing.
"He was always straightforward to be around, and good to be around," Foxtale's Dermot Joyce said. "Nothing dramatic about him."
Candy Boy saved his brief bit of drama for when he was shipped to Legacy Ranch, near Clements, California, to be broken and learn his early lessons.
"Our place is probably six hours from the airport," ranch manager Shaun Hadley said, "and they hauled him up here, and he seemed to be OK, but they said he hadn't drank much.
"Within two days, he colicked, and we had to take him over, and they opened him up. They didn't take any intestine out, but he had a blockage. He was dehydrated. So we got him over that."
After Candy Boy recovered fully and got into training, Hadley soon realized what he had on his hands.
"For Lee and them, I work them a few times, slow quarter-miles. And about the third time I worked him, he just looked like he was galloping around there. He went a quarter in :23 and galloped out (three furlongs) in :36 flat.
"He's the best horse I've ever had here," Hadley said. "He didn't look like he got off a gallop."
Joyce is expecting a big performance from Candy Boy on Saturday.
"I'd be surprised if he's not in the first four," Joyce said.
Centennial Farms' Wicked Strong likewise tipped his hand from his early training under the tutelage of Paula Parsons in Middleburg, Virginia.
"Wicked Strong, from the time he stepped off the van with all the other yearlings, he was the biggest, the strongest, the most correct-legged, the toughest," Parsons recalled.
"He was in the barn easy to handle. He was very easy to break because he was fearless."
But Wicked Strong did have one idiosyncrasy: a penchant for rearing up.
"He liked to spend time on two legs instead of four -- he was a great rear-up horse," Parsons said. "But not to be common, not to refuse to go forward, or not want to train. He did it in exuberance, in glee. He would rear up going to the track, and even when he was far enough along in training that he was galloping a good solid two miles, he would still pull up and want to rear up on the way home just because he thought it was fun.
"Fortunately, he had a rider (Alexis Rio Conde) who was very good and who thought Wicked Strong was funny. And so it didn't upset him, it didn't unnerve him, he never punished him for it. He just kept him in a straight line, so the horse was happy, the rider was happy, and it was really a marriage made in heaven.
"As long as the rider had their balance, and didn't pull back on him, it was just like watching a dance."
Parsons also made special mention of her foreman, Juan Gallegos, for playing a "big part" in the colt's life. Gallegos' horsemanship shone through in knowing just how to handle Wicked Strong -- with gentleness.
"Juan would never fight with him, was always so good and kind with him in the stall," Parsons said. "It was a really good relationship that the two of those guys had. Between Juan and Alexis, they had him all figured out. They never got hard-handed with him.
"In a lot of ways, he was a pleasure to have in the barn: he never missed an oat, he did not become overly studdish with the fillies in the barn like a lot of the colts do over the course of a better part of a year that I have them. He really wasn't interested in that.
"But he was totally interested in training. He loved to get out, he loved to gallop.
"Even the first time he went to the gate, it wasn't like, 'Oh my God, a gate! Oh God, scary!' It was like, 'Let me at that thing; what is that?' Just dead-curious to get in, and get through it, smell it.
"The horse just never put a foot wrong in terms of his training -- he didn't get sick, he ate all of his food, I never had to pull up because of a sore shin or a pulled anything.
"You could never get to the bottom of him. He was a horse that was never tired.
"If there was ever a horse that was marked to be a good one from the get-go, this is the one," Parsons summed up.
"He was just the big horse."
On Saturday, Wicked Strong -- and his Derby rivals -- will all try to be the "big horse."