CRAWFORD | Morning line musing: Battaglia calls this "one of the easier" Derby lines he's set
Churchill Downs' oddsmaker Mike Battaglia talks about the process of setting the morning line for the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Mike Battaglia has been setting the morning line for the Kentucky Derby for 43 years. There’s not much he hasn’t seen. But if his morning line favorite for this year’s Derby goes off as the favorite and win the race, he will witness a first, at least in the modern era.
Four straight favorites have won the race. That hasn’t happened since Foolish Pleasure won as a $1.90-1 shot in 1974, completing a run of four straight in 1975, one year after Cannonade also won as the favorite in the first Derby Battaglia handicapped.
“Five favorites in a row, that’s going to be tough,” Battaglia said. “We’ve had some runs of favorites, but not five in a row.”
Not since a run from 1891 to 1896, when six straight favorites won the race, has it happened.
Battaglia installed Classic Empire as a 4-1 favorite for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, which puts him in the “not quite a lock” range. Still, Battaglia has only four colts at odds of under 10-1 in his morning line, and called this Derby “one of the easier ones” he’s done in his four decades.
Todd Pletcher’s Always Dreaming and McCraken, trained by Ian Wilkes, are co-second-choices at 5-1. Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry, trained by Graham Motion, is 6-1.
“I’ve been doing this for 43 years, but I think this was a pretty straightforward field,” Battaglia said. “I don’t think that anything but those (top) three horses could be the favorite. There have been some years when I’ve made 5-1 or 6-1 favorites. Those are the years when it’s tough. If you make a favorite 6-1, which I’ve done a couple of times in the Derby, that’s really tough. When you get down to 4-1, I’m not usually wrong when I get down to the 5-2 shots and 3-1 shots, but I’m pretty confident this year.”
Not that it’s easy. In Battaglia’s morning line, he picked the Derby winner four of the first six times he set the line (Cannonade, Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid). The two favorites who lost (Honest Pleasure and Alydar) finished second.
But from 1980 to 1999, he didn’t have a winner among his morning-line favorites. Fusaichi Pegasus broke the streak in 2000, and Battaglia also had the winner with his 2008 morning line favorite, Big Brown.
Battaglia’s past seven morning line favorites also have been the betting favorites at post time. The last one who wasn’t – I Want Revenge – scratched before the 2009 Derby. Before that, Battaglia’s 5-1 favorite in 2007, Curlin, wound up not being the betting favorite. The public liked Street Sense, who wound up winning the race.
As for this year, Battaglia had to weigh the difficulties that Classic Empire had this spring, after being the 2-year-old champion, against his impressive performance in the Arkansas Derby and his works since.
“Classic Empire, he really had to overcome a lot, he missed five weeks of training,” Battaglia said. “He had the abscess in his foot. He wasn’t 100 percent in the Arkansas Derby, got stuck in between horses, and he still won. And he’s going to move forward in this race. I think he’s a deserving favorite.”
Always Dreaming, after a dominating five-length victory in the Florida Derby, looked to be the favorite, before Classic Empire’s return to form. But Pletcher’s talented colt also had some issues in training at Churchill Downs, was fighting with his exercise rider, and Battaglia said he had to take that into account.
“Always Dreaming was so good in the Florida Derby, and he’s really been training fast, some people think he’s training too fast, and could be a little headstrong,” Battaglia said. “I had him as a solid second choice, but there were some questions about him, his training, and McCraken was training so well, I wound up knocking him down and making them co-second choices.”
McCraken, who is 3-for-3 at Churchill Downs, got credit for his affinity for the Derby track.
“He loves the track. I saw him galloping this morning, and he looked great,” Battaglia said. “He’s back on his favorite track. He’ll run well.”
Battaglia is like everyone else, he looks for value when it comes to betting. He said the typical Derby morning line takes about five hours to put together, and that he makes only minor tweaks on the fly after seeing the Derby Draw. In the case of this year’s draw, he said he saw little to change at all. In general, he’ll only start messing with the odds if the No. 1 post goes to a favorite.
“The one post won’t bother Lookin At Lee,” Battaglia said. “Picking up Corey Lanerie (as jockey) for Lookin At Lee was a great move by Steve Asmussen, because Corey knows his track as well or anybody. I’m telling you, he’s the new Calvin Borel. He knows this rail, and he will fit Lookin At Lee. So I think the one post won’t bother him. For the rest of them, when it’s 20 horses, the post, you can’t look at it that hard. Say you got a great post, the eight. You break a little slow, the seven breaks this way, the nine breaks this way, and the eight is not a great post anymore. So you can get bothered from any post, and you can get lucky from any post.”
As for longshots, Battaglia said he likes a couple.
“Either Lookin At Lee or State of Honor,” he said. “State of Honor because I think he’s going to be in front. Lookin At Lee because he’s going to be flying at the end.”