- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia is used to second-guessers, but they usually wait for the morning line to be posted first. Battaglia began defending the Kentucky Derby line yesterday more than 10 hours before post positions were drawn.

Empire Maker is the 6-5 favorite to win the 129th running despite trainer Bobby Frankel's admission the colt has a bruised hoof. That Battaglia made Ten Most Wanted the second choice at 6-1 was even more controversial. It's the biggest gap between the first and second choices since Battaglia became the Derby oddsmaker in 1978.

"There's a big gap between Empire Maker and the rest of them," Battaglia said. "The Derby is bet completely different [than other races]. You normally don't have this many people asking who you are going to make the favorite in the third race and why."

But no other race had $79 million bet on it nationwide last year, either. Advance Derby wagering now starts in February. There's even a $5 million payoff on KentuckyDerby.com for anyone picking the exact order of finish, though the chances of getting hit by lightning 20 times are less than picking the 17 runners correctly.

Battaglia stayed with his original 6-5 choice, meaning 45 percent of wagering is on Empire Maker. Battaglia believes Frankel wouldn't risk running the colt if the injury was serious.

"If the horse isn't right, then [Empire Maker] isn't going to run," Battaglia said.

If Empire Maker is scratched, Battaglia said the odds would radically change throughout the field with Ten Most Wanted probably becoming the top choice at 4-1 or 7-2. Last year, Harlan's Holiday was the highest-odds Derby favorite ever at 6-1 before finishing seventh.

Empire Maker could be the heaviest favorite since 1979 other than Arazi, a 9-10 choice in 1992 en route to finishing eighth. Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) is the only top choice to win since 1980.

Battaglia's line reflects his perception on what the final odds will be, not his personal belief of the horses' chances. Considered one of the nation's leading linesmakers, Battaglia still has to defend it down to the long shots. Even NBC commentator Tom Hammond joked of his friend, "Do you know what a black cat he is?"

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas and Battaglia even wagered $100 on whether Scrimshaw will be more or less than the 15-1 morning line. Lukas went less, thinking Scrimshaw will go 8-1. They joked over whether Ten Cents A Shine is only 50-1 because Lukas is the trainer.

"[Otherwise], they'd have to add a light," Lukas said of the tote board only showing 99 to 1.

Said Battaglia, "I'm still going to make him 50 to 1."

Countered Lukas: "And that's just because we're friends."

Certainly, Lukas backers know the Hall of Famer can pull a shocker. Despite 13 Triple Crown victories, Lukas' average payoff is a gaudy $19.20. Derby winners Thunder Gulch (1988) paid $51 and Charismatic (1999) returned $64.60. Maybe that's why Battaglia is using Scrimshaw in his triples along with Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted. Lukas started lobbying support for his potential fifth Derby winner, saying Scrimshaw's Lexington Stakes victory on April 19 shows the colt is peaking.

"It's like near drowning," Lukas said. "Sometimes when you throw them in the deep end of the pool they're not so sure they can handle it. He now knows it's fine."

Battaglia no longer factors post positions into his morning line after three straight winners came from the outside auxiliary gate in 1999 to 2001. The field entry was also eliminated in 2000 when technology allowed more than 14 betting entries, letting the worst horses remain independent long shots instead of grouped together as one wager.

Peace Rules and Buddy Gil are the 8-1 co-third choices, followed by Atswhatimtalknabout and Indian Express (12-1), Scrimshaw, Sir Cherokee and Funny Cide (15-1), Brancusi, Offlee Wild and Domestic Dispute (30-1) and Supah Blitz, Lone Star Sky, Eye of the Tiger, Ten Cents A Shine and Outta Here (50-1).

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