DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If all goes according to plan, tomorrow is the day the sun shines bright, the people are gay, and the birds make music all the day, for it is the first Saturday in May, Kentucky Derby day. But long before the horses are off racing in the greatest two minutes in sports - that's a trademark phrase, by the way - there is one man all eyes will be on, and his name is Mike Battaglia. He sets the morning line at Churchill Downs and has joined us from a trailer next to the racetrack to tell us about handicapping horses.
Mr. Battaglia, good morning to you.
MIKE BATTAGLIA: Good morning, Dave. And call me Mike.
GREENE: OK, Mike. You know, I wonder what exactly it means that you set the line, the handicapping for the horses. Tell me what this process is.
BATTAGLIA: Well, what I'm trying to do is figure out what the people are going to bet on. That's what I have to do. And I have to try to come as close to the closing odds as I can.
GREENE: Just so I understand this correctly - the closing odds, of course, are the odds that are there when the horses start running.
GREENE: And you set the opening line before the betting and the money changes the odds all over the place. And you've got to get it right, or as right as possible, when the betting process begins.
BATTAGLIA: That's right. And to do that, you have to get into the heads of the betters. So you have to decide what horse that they are going to bet on, which horses they're going to leave alone and not bet on. And it may not always be the horse that you think will win the race.
GREENE: You know, Mike, I will admit that I like to gamble a little bit. I've been to a couple casinos in my lifetime. And, of course, there, you know, the casinos are trying to make money. I mean, who do you work for and is it your job to try and make money for the house, the track, as it were?
BATTAGLIA: No. The track gets the same percentage no matter who wins. It doesn't matter if the favorite wins or a 50-1 shot wins - the payout is the same.
GREENE: I'm going to venture a guess here, that you're actually not allowed to place bets yourself.
BATTAGLIA: I wouldn't be able to do this job if I didn't bet.
GREENE: You do bet?
BATTAGLIA: I don't think that somebody that sets the odds and that has their selections published for everybody else to look at and bet could do it without gambling. And I think that's a big part of it.
GREENE: You'll be there placing money?
BATTAGLIA: Oh, yes. I'm probably going to bet on Union Rags. I'm going to probably bet on Daddy Knows Best for a long shot. And I will use horses like Bodemeister and Hansen. I think Hansen is a live long shot. I think he got the best of the draw of all of the speed horses. And I think he's going to be more of a contender than a lot of people think.
GREENE: And what are your odds? I mean, you said the goal is that these odds that you set at the beginning to be very close to or the same as what the odds are when the horses start racing.
GREENE: I mean, are you usually pretty on target?
BATTAGLIA: Oh, you have to be. If you're not, you know, they're going to find somebody else to do it. You make mistakes, you know. There are always some horses that can be different. But overall, yes, usually accurate.
GREENE: You know, there's so many traditions at Churchill Downs, at the Kentucky Derby. I mean, what are some of the traditions that you really, really cherish?
BATTAGLIA: You have to be in Louisville for Derby week and for the Kentucky Derby and be at the track to realize what it is. When they play "My Old Kentucky Home," when the horses walk on the track, you know, it brings a tear to a lot of people's eyes. It just - it's such a part of Kentucky history, of Louisville history.
And anybody that's associated with racing, especially the jockeys and the trainers, wherever they go when they ask what do you do - I'm a trainer, I'm a jockey. Oh, have you ever won the Kentucky Derby? That's the race that everybody around the country knows.
GREENE: That's Churchill Downs' morning line odds maker Mike Battaglia. He's also a reporter and handicapper for NBC Sports.
Mike, thanks so much. Enjoy the race.
BATTAGLIA: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.