Tuesday, April 29, 2003

The Derby's his day


Anyone who knows horse racing well, knows about Edgewood's Mike Battaglia, handicapper extraordinaire

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A horse-racing fan spots him speed walking through a Keeneland crowd before the day's seventh race. Mike Battaglia is a silver-haired blur in a dark blue suit, but he stops abruptly when the fan yells: "Hey Mike! Who do you like?"

The handicapper checks his program.

"Three," he says.

"Guaranteed?" the stranger asks, but Battaglia, now streaking toward an elevator, doesn't hear.

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OK, so the horse - Devil's Gulch - finishes out of the money. Battaglia has never said he's perfect. Still, he can stake a claim as one of horse racing's most knowledgeable and high-profile figures. Anybody who follows the sport has read his morning lines or heard him calling races or pored over his newspaper picks or watched him on NBC-TV's broadcast team.

In horse racing circles, particularly in Kentucky, Mike Battaglia is as ubiquitous as bluegrass.

Which means this week, there's only one place the 53-year-old Edgewood resident could be: Churchill Downs. And nobody's happier to be part of the spectacle.

This will be the 29th Kentucky Derby for which Battaglia has set the morning line, which some people mistakenly believe is a prediction of the order of finish. The morning line actually is Battaglia's forecast of the race's final odds (which are determined by the public's wagers).

"I've been pretty pleased with most of my Derby lines," Battaglia says between races on this April Sunday at Keeneland. "I've screwed up a couple in 28 years. Made the wrong favorite. That's acceptable."

What's "absolutely unbelievable," in Battaglia's view, is that only one Derby favorite has won the race in the past 23 years. (Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.)

"People talk about it being a jinx, and I keep saying no," says Battaglia. His own theory revolves around the fact that these are young animals, 3 years old, and they're asked to do things they've never done before: go a longer distance, carry more weight, run against a larger field of horses.

"Everything is magnified in the Derby," Battaglia says.

Including the pressure on the oddsmaker.

Clarifying what his job is

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Mike Battaglia leaves the comforts of his desk to watch a race.
(Mike Simons photo)
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In his fourth year setting the Derby's morning line, in 1978, Battaglia made Alydar the favorite over Affirmed.

"Laz Barrera (the trainer for Affirmed) got so mad at me," Battaglia says. "He said, there's no way my horse won't be the favorite."

At post time, Alydar was in fact the favorite. Affirmed, however, won the race, and went on to capture the Triple Crown, the last horse to do so.

"Barrera was right that his horse was better, but that wasn't my job (to pick the winner)," Battaglia says. "My job was to pick the favorite."

Last year, Battaglia made Harlan's Holiday the favorite, although a lukewarm one, at odds of 9-2.

"Mike is always wrong," the horse's trainer, Kenny McPeek, jokingly told reporters at the time. In fact, 2002 turned out to be one of Battaglia's better efforts.

"He's the best," says a more serious McPeek, who counts Battaglia as a friend. "And Mike's passionate, too. He gets real excited about big races. You can just see by the look on his face how much he loves the sport."

Grew up in Latonia

Growing up in Covington's Latonia neighborhood, the oldest of John and Nancy Battaglia's nine children seemed destined for a racetrack career.

BATTAGLIA FILE
Occupation: Horse racing oddsmaker, handicapper, announcer, analyst.
Home: Edgewood.
Born: Feb. 10, 1950. Grew up in Covington's Latonia neighborhood.
Family: Married 29 years to Chris Battaglia. Children are Danielle, 25; and Bret, 23.
Education: Holy Cross High School, class of 1968. Attended Northern Kentucky University.
Current project: Making Empire Maker an early 6-5 favorite in the Kentucky Derby; working as part of NBC-TV's Derby broadcast team.
"We're big on pedigree in this business," says John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs and a Battaglia friend, "and (horse racing) is in his bloodlines." That resonates with racing fans, Asher adds. "They know Mike is one of them."

Battaglia's father, who died in 1981, ran the old Latonia horse track (now Turfway Park), the now-defunct Miles Park in Louisville, and, for a time, River Downs. Mike was still in high school when he began ushering at Latonia, wiping seats on Saturday afternoons. By age 19, he was juggling college at Northern Kentucky University and a fulltime job at the track.

The accounting major dropped out of college after two years. But he immersed himself in numbers of another sort. His father taught him how to make a morning line by considering lots of information: the horse's class and past performance, distance of a race, jockey, post position, trainer, track conditions.

Then when the Miles Park announcer left for another job, it fell to Battaglia to find a replacement. He failed. So his father asked him to do it.

He'd never called a race. He recalls his father telling him not to worry, saying: "No. 1, nobody comes to this racetrack. No. 2, the public address system is so bad they can't hear you anyway. No. 3, I'm the boss and I'm not going to fire you no matter how bad you screw up."

That led to another opportunity a few years later. A few days before the Derby at Churchill Downs, Battaglia was in the stands watching the day's first race. Legendary race caller Chick Anderson's voice suddenly fell silent.

Anderson had fainted. Battaglia was summoned to the press box, where the track president asked him: "Think you can call the second race for me?"

Nervous, he didn't do well. Then he called the third race, and performed much better. Later that day, he was hired as the racetrack's backup announcer. After Anderson's departure in 1977, Battaglia got the job.

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Mike Battaglia performs his duties at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington.
(Mike Simons photo)
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His first Derby call was the famed Affirmed-Alydar duel. Battaglia then called the next 18 Derbys until the track replaced him as announcer in 1996. He was disappointed, but was given new duties, including hosting the track's replay show.

"Looking back on it, it was probably a blessing in disguise," he says. "It moved me from behind the microphone to in front of the camera at Churchill. That advanced my career more than calling the races."

Ten months of the year, five to six days a week, Battaglia can be found at a Kentucky track. He's at Turfway for five months of meets, Churchill Downs for three months and Keeneland for two.

He begins this sun-drenched day in the paddock, taping the opening to Today at Keeneland, a cable TV show seen on outlets throughout the Commonwealth. Then it's upstairs to the press box, where he watches the first race. Seconds after it ends, while viewing the replay, he's on the phone calling the race for a Florida-based telephone service. (The same service also uses his race calls at Turfway and Churchill Downs.) Then he dashes around a corner to a TV production studio to update the race for the cable show. After feature races, he zips down to the infield to interview winning jockeys and trainers.

Calls races at Turfway

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Mike Battaglia works at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington.
(Mike Simons photo)
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Besides Keeneland and Churchill Downs, his morning lines appear in programs at Turfway, Ellis Park (Henderson, Ky.) and Arlington Park (Arlington Heights, Ill.). His daily racing column appears in the Lexington Herald Leader. He still calls races live for fans at Turfway, where he's worked for 35 years. And of course, there's the NBC gig, which he's had for 10 years.

"I get 15 W-2 (forms) every year, that's how many jobs I have. I love it that way."

Says Asher: "He brings passion, credibility and expertise to everything he does."

Nowhere is the passion more evident than when Battaglia has money riding on a horse. In the course of a fast-paced workday, he makes time to bet.

"I think being a gambler is part of my job," he says. "I don't think you could do a good job doing what I do ... if you didn't bet. You have to know the bettors' minds. Plus, I really believe if you hung around the track for as many years as I have and didn't gamble, you'd lose interest."

So here's Battaglia, watching the fifth race at Keeneland, pulling for jockey Pat Day to ride Guapazo to victory.

"C'mon Pat! C'mon Pat! Get this horse runnin' now."

No winner this time

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Mike Battaglia places a bet at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington.
(Mike Simons photo)
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As the horses enter the stretch, Battaglia jumps up from his chair and peers through binoculars.

"C'mon Pat!"

Guapazo finishes second to Shah Jehan. "God bless it!" Battaglia yells, slamming his hand on a steel desk.

He began gambling early in life, and says he endured 15 straight years of losing money. But his luck, or skill, or maybe both, began to improve when he was in his mid-30s. The highlight came one day in 1994, when he and a partner had the only Pick Six winning ticket at Churchill Downs. It was worth $128,993.

After a lifetime at tracks, you figure Battaglia has a lot of horses and odds floating around in his head.

"Somebody explained it once as having a bathtub memory," he says. "You fill it up with one race, and as soon as it's over you drain it out and fill it up again."

Ah, but the Derby is different. He'll hang on to certain memories forever: super horse Secretariat storming down the stretch; the epic battle between Affirmed and Alydar; and the last Derby he called in 1996, when Grindstone edged Cavonnier in the closest finish ever.

"I've actually felt like I never had to work," he says. "I'm getting paid to come to the race track every day. Who would not want a job like this? It's not brain surgery. It's just fun."

E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com

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