Did you ever wonder what goes into making the morning-line betting odds for all those big horse races like the ones coming up at Keeneland’s Spring Meet this weekend?
Who says Good Magic is the favorite for the 94th running of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday? Why not some of the other horses? Who’s making these numbers up?
That person is Mike Battaglia, a friendly, familiar face to horse racing fans almost everywhere who has served as odds maker, analyst, track announcer, race day host and a number of other roles over more than four decades at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Turfway and other tracks.
But the morning line isn’t just a gauge of his horse expertise. It’s also a measure of how well he knows the betting public. Because odds makers don’t set the morning line based on who they think will win.
They set it on who they think you think will win.
“You actually have to be a mind reader,” Battaglia explained after announcing his odds for Saturday’s Blue Grass and Ashland Stakes. “I don’t think you can make a morning line if you weren’t a gambler. Because you have to get in the heads of the gambler and you have to sit there and say, ‘Who are they going to bet on and why?’”
Ultimately, the final odds are set by where the money goes. If people bet heavy on a particular horse, the odds on that horse go down. What Battaglia tries to do with his morning lines is estimate how that money will be bet.
“What will they do with a horse like Good Magic? He didn’t run well last time out. What are they going to do?” Battaglia said of his thinking process. “Are they going to hammer him down to 4-5 like they did first time out (this year at the Fountain of Youth, Good Magic opened as a 7-5 favorite and went off at 4-5). Nah. Will he be 5-1? Nah. You look at that, and you have to try to figure out what the bettors are going to do.”
Most of the time, Battaglia is right. His morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby has been the at-the-gate favorite 35 times out of 44 years.
“You take pride in it, but you have your bad ones, too,” Battaglia said. “I made Pulpit the favorite (2-1 in 1997). He went off 7-1. … It can be tough.”
Battaglia, now 68, began making odds for Churchill and Keeneland when he was just 24 years old. He and his brother Bruce learned the craft from their father, John Battaglia, who was odds maker and later general manager at Latonia (now Turfway).
“It was in our genes, I guess,” Mike Battaglia said. “He sat down. He taught us how to make the morning line. I’ll never forget — Bill Greeley (former Keeneland president) and Bob Gorham (former Churchill Downs general manager) — back in the fall of 1974 their line maker was retiring and they wanted the same guy to do the line. And they knew I was doing it (at Latonia). And they knew my father, and they trusted me. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Battaglia’s first Kentucky Derby as odds maker was Foolish Pleasure in 1975. Morning line: 9-5. At the gate: 9-5.
“So, I started off real well,” Battaglia said, smiling.
His next few Derbys, he had horses like Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid who were both Kentucky Derby winners as favorites. Slew won the Triple Crown, as well.
“You go back to the ’70s, and I thought it was easy … You had some real good ones back there,” he said. “It got harder after that.”
And sometimes, it got personal. In 1983, trainer Laz Barrera wanted Battaglia fired after his Paris Prince was put in as a “field” betting choice back when only 12 horses got odds, Battaglia said.
Barrera, now deceased, apparently believed Battaglia held a grudge after his 1978 Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, beat Kentucky Derby morning-line favorite Alydar. Barrera thought Battaglia stuck Paris Prince in the field as retribution.
“He went up to Lynn Stone, the president of Churchill, and said, ‘You’ve got to fire him! He did this just because Affirmed beat Alydar, and he’s still mad about that. My horse doesn’t belong in the field!’” Battaglia recalled. “Of course, everything was fine. He belonged in the field.”
Alydar, by the way, was still favorite when the 1978 race went off. Paris Prince finished 10th in 1983.
Making a single morning line can take Battaglia anywhere from five to 30 minutes, depending on the race.
“Derby Day takes forever, because there’s all those races. It takes me a good four or five hours to do the line for Derby Day,” he said, adding that’s not counting the weeks of just thinking about Derby horses before he actually sits down to do it.
For Saturday’s Blue Grass and Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, Battaglia arrived at Tuesday’s post draw early and pored over his notes as the fields for the races were about to be announced. Post positions can affect a horse’s odds, but aren’t a major factor, Battaglia said.
“If Free Drop Billy had drawn way on the outside, I might not have made Free Drop Billy the second choice. I might have moved Quip up. But since they both drew well, I didn’t make any changes,” he said.
Battaglia decided last fall would be his last as Keeneland’s on-air race day host and post-race interviewer, but he continues to enjoy making the morning line and has never really felt any pressure in doing it.
“When you’re as old as I am, you’ve been doing it as long, you do the best you can,” Battaglia said. “That’s what I’ve done all my life. You do the best you can, and you go with it and you don’t look back and say ‘oh, man, I should have done that.’ I don’t do that. I don’t second guess myself. … If it’s good, I take pride in it. If it’s bad, fine, I take the blame.”
And who does Battaglia think will win Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes? Hint: It’s not the morning-line favorite. On Tuesday, he was leaning toward Quip. Check out his latest picks in Saturday’s Herald-Leader.
“You have to look at Good Magic, but I think I’ll probably try to beat the favorite,” Battaglia said.
Keeneland Spring Meet
When: Friday through April 27, with 16 days of racing. There is no racing Mondays and Tuesdays.
First race: 1:05 p.m. Gates open at 11 a.m. Drive-through wagering opens at 8 a.m.
Admission: General admission, $5 (Free for ages 12 and under). Reserved grandstand seats, $10 Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, $20 Saturdays. Parking is free in designated lots.
For more information: Call 1-800-456-3412, visit Keeneland.com, or follow Keeneland on Facebook and Twitter.