Sunday, April 25, 2004

A quick chat with ... Mike Battaglia

By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

This year is a milestone for horse-racing guru and Edgewood, Ky., resident Mike Battaglia, who will be setting the Kentucky Derby's morning line for the 30th year. Battaglia said he'll probably work out a line by Monday in preparation for Wednesday's draw, and then it's off to Churchill Downs for the 130th running of the Derby.

He chatted with the Enquirer the week before the Derby about three things he loves: horses, horses and more horses.

Q: What do you do to set the line?

A: I try to get inside people's heads. I try to figure out who the public will bet on - not who they think will win. It's a really complicated formula with a lot of different factors, so how I do it can't be summed up in one or two sentences. But you have to judge based on what people see, what people are going to like and what people aren't going to like.

Q: Like what?

A: Smarty Jones is undefeated, and people like that. What's going against him is that he has a first-time trainer and first-time jockey going to the derby, and not many people saw him run in (the Arkansas Derby). Then there's The Cliff's Edge, which won the Blue Grass Stakes, and has won twice at Churchill downs. His trainer is Nick Zito, who's won the Derby twice, and jockey Shane Sellers has raced in 4,000 races.

Q: Who could surprise this year?

A: Lion Heart has a big chance. People might not think he can race that far, but he's dangerous. I'd say the favorite would be Cliff's Edge at 4-to-1 - but I'd say Smarty Jones would be 41/2 -to-1. It's going to be close.

Q: What's your most memorable Derby?

A: Believe it or not, it was in 1978, with Affirmed-Alydar. (Affirmed is the last to capture the Triple Crown.) It was one of the greatest Derbies ever.

Q: What is the most unusual horse name you've come across?

A: Once I called a race at Churchill Downs and there were three horses neck-and-neck down the stretch named Titagaca, Notsolaka and Polikala. Try saying their names over and over.

Q: Who won?

A: After the race was over, one of the Churchill officials asked me who won and I said, "Not a clue!"

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