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Kentucky Derby Favorite Overshadowed by Owner


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Horse racing's Triple Crown begins tomorrow with the 131st running of the Kentucky Derby. Twenty horses will run for the roses at Churchill Downs, and the winner will have a shot at doing what no horse has done since 1978: win all three races of the Triple Crown. Joining us as he does most Fridays is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal.

Welcome back, Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: Should we have our Triple Crown hopes up this year?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, we've been teased for the last couple of years. We had Funny Cide in 2003 and, of course, Smarty Jones last year, and they both won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and then lost in the Belmont Stakes. Those two horses were real reminders of how this sport can capture the public's imagination, especially because they were blue-collar stories outside of the blue-blood world of horse breeding. And this year everyone is talking about the oddsmakers' favorite, Bellamy Road. His owner is not exactly a blue-collar guy: George Steinbrenner.

SIEGEL: Yeah. The odds on Bellamy Road are 5:2 as of this morning, and that's a lot better chance for Bellamy Road than for Mr. Steinbrenner's other property, the New York Yankees. Do horse people think that this is the year for Mr. Steinbrenner?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, Bellamy Road is considered one of the strongest horses to come into the Derby because he won the Wood Memorial, which is an important Derby qualifier, by 17 1/2 lengths, and that's a lot. But the Derby is a very crowded field; 20 horses is a lot of horses. Bellamy Road typically has had big leads. Here he's going to be challenged, and that changes the dynamics for the horse and for the jockey. Also he's raced just five times in his career, just twice as a three-year-old this year, and that's unusual. So the other horses you might keep an eye on are Afleet Alex, High Fly and Bandini.

SIEGEL: Bandini. Whoever does win tomorrow will move on to the Preakness, and then after that comes the Belmont Stakes, trying to end that Triple Crown drought.

Mr. FATSIS: Twenty-six years. Streaks happen in sports, of course; consider the Red Sox. After Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948, no horse did it until Secretariat in 1973, then Seattle Slew won all three in 1977, Affirmed did it the next year, and we've had nothing since. There's a Web site called Hot Hand which is run by a Texas Tech professor, and it's devoted to analyzing streaky behavior in sports. According to data there, based on the fact that we've had 11 Triple Crown winners since all three races first were run in 1875, the odds of going this long without a Triple Crown winner are around 5 percent.

SIEGEL: Well, what seems to be very common is seeing horses like Funny Cide and Smarty Jones who win the first two legs, the Derby and the Preakness, and then don't win the Triple Crown.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. And through 1978, when Affirmed won, 11 out of the 19 times when a horse had a chance to do this, to win the Triple Crown after winning the two races, he did it. And that works out to about a 58 percent chance of winning the Triple Crown. And this, of course, is again from the Hot Hand site. But we are 0-for-10 since 1978. Probability says it should be happening; horse racing says maybe it shouldn't. The sport has changed. There's more selective breeding and genetics. There are more shorter races for younger horses. So perhaps the pool of horses has just become more homogeneous. So it's harder to stand out and win all three of these races, which are all at different distances.

SIEGEL: Well, so much for sports; now on to the business of sports. Our viewing of the Triple Crown on television is also changing; some new television deals.

Mr. FATSIS: Yep, all three races have been on NBC since 2001. That's going to change starting next year; you'll get a split. ABC is taking the Belmont Stakes, and this week NBC announced that it would retain the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Now these near-miss Triple Crowns and these likable horses that we've had have really helped NBC attract bigger audiences. Seventeen million people watched the Derby last year, the most in 12 years. But the split between the networks is going to change that dynamic. You're not going to see this cross-promotion from one race to the next. Viewers, though, are used to channel-surfing.

SIEGEL: Last year there was some controversy over jockeys wearing advertising on the sides of their pants or their silks. Will we see some ads tomorrow on the jockeys in the Derby?

Mr. FATSIS: We'll see a few. Kentucky's horse racing authorities have permitted these ads to appear on the sides of the jockeys' pants. But the people that run Churchill Downs asked owners to really take charge of this, and what that's meant is that several owners have turned down deals preventing jockeys from putting logos on their pants. Ultimately these things are really hard to see anyway because they're so small, but on the chance that a horse wins one of these big races, it is some promotion.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: I've been waiting to say it. Stefan Fatsis talks with us about pants and the business of pants most Fridays on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.