LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It happens every time, says Calvin Borel. Tell a stranger that you're a jockey, and you get two questions in return.
"First, they want to know if you've ever ridden in a Kentucky Derby," Borel says.
He cackles in his Louisiana manner. "Then, they want to know if you've ever won a Kentucky Derby."
"The thing is," said Borel, who in fact has won America's most famous race twice in the past three years, in 2007 with Street Sense and 2009 with Mine That Bird, "to a lot of people, the Derby is horse racing."
The industry's troubles have been well documented. There's a shortage of horses, which means tracks have shortened their race dates. The recent economic recession didn't bypass racing, causing the price of thoroughbreds to fall and leaving less money for fans to wager.
So when the nation's attention turns to Churchill Downs the first Saturday of May, it's important that once-a-year fans receive a good show -- in the hopes that they'll turn into more than once-a-year fans.
"What I tell the young guys who are coming up is, you have to treat people the right way," said D. Wayne Lukas, who has trained four Derby winners. "So when a couple with their kid walk by the barn, you take the time to say hello and pose for a picture. When a celebrity comes over Derby week, you treat them well to keep them interested.
"This is a great, great sport and this is a great, great race. And it's our jobs to keep it that way."
There are great story lines every Derby year, including the last one, when Borel's Mine That Bird roared down the stretch to win in a 50-to-1 upset (paying $102 on a $2 win ticket).
The not-so-regally-bred gelding was ignored for much of the week after arriving from his home base in El Paso, Texas, on the heels of a 21-hour van ride. The truck's driver was his trainer, Chip Woolley, who favors black cowboy hats and was hobbling around on crutches after breaking a leg in a motorcycle accident.
But the indelible memory for television viewers was Borel cocking his head and screaming in pure joy. "You always dream about winning one Derby," he said, "but the second one feels just as good."
So what could be the stories this year, when up to 20 colts, geldings and possibly one filly will break from the gate late Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs?
-- There's Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas protege who has won four Eclipse Awards as the nation's top trainer but is 0 for 24 in Derby attempts. He could saddle one quarter of the field despite potential favorite Eskendereya being scratched Sunday with a leg problem.
"There's not much difference between 0 for 24 and 0 for 31," he said with a laugh over the weekend. "In one way or another, each one has shown that he or she deserves a chance at it. You only get one chance at the Derby as a 3-year-old, and you don't want to leave the winner in the barn."
-- Other top trainers are, of course, represented.
Lukas has a runner in Dublin, who he believes has his best race in front of him after finishes of second (to Bob Baffert's Conveyance), third (to Baffert's Lookin at Lucky) and third (to Arkansas Derby winner Line of David).
Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, has nearly doubled the earnings of any other horse with Lookin at Lucky's $1.48 million thanks to six graded stakes wins and a second to Godolphin Racing's Vale of York in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. "You know by the way a horse works if he has a chance in the Derby," Baffert said last week. "This horse has an excellent chance."
And two-time Derby-winner Nick Zito plans to start fast-closing Florida Derby winner Ice Box and could sneak in with Wood Memorial runner-up Jackson Bend if there are any defections before post positions are drawn on Wednesday.
"You do what's right for your horse," said Zito, "but this is a tough race to pass up."
-- And there's a story along the lines of Mine That Bird a year ago.
Noble's Promise was purchased for $10,000 as a weanling (Mine That Bird's original price was $9,000) and later was syndicated among a group of 25 friends that ponied up $1,000 apiece for training costs.
The colt lost its first race at Keeneland, then won a $25,000 maiden special weight at Ellis Park in Henderson. It went on to wins in Pennsylvania, California and Arkansas to arrive at the Derby as the second-leading money winner with $738,000.
Noble's Promise will be far from the favorite on Saturday, but his owners promise to have more fun than anyone except the winners -- unless it's them.
"The Kentucky Derby, it's the Super Bowl of our sport," said trainer Ken McPeek. "In America, at least, it's the racing game of the year when everyone is watching. So you have to love it when you get a good story line going, and this is a just a great story."