Dirt's a handicap at the Derby
The finish line at the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Winner Street sense is on the right.
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Scott Jagow: Tomorrow is the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby. Last year, it was Street Sense roaring down the stretch to win. Bettors will throw down more than $100 million on this year's race. But picking the winner is even harder than usual. Churchill Downs has a dirt track. But many of the races leading up to the Derby were run on these new synthetic surfaces, which are all different. We're joined by Jennie Rees. She covers horse racing for the Louisville Courier-Journal. Jennie, why have so many tracks gone synthetic?
Jennie Rees: The major motivation is to reduce injuries in race horses. And the early returns were quite promising. And if you can reduce injuries, if you can reduce the money that owners are spending on veterinary bills, you will have larger fields, more horses running in races and you'll get more owners in the game, because they won't be busted by injuries to horses and veterinary bills.
Jagow: Here in California, the state actually mandated that the race tracks be synthetic. Why hasn't Churchill changed?
Rees: Well, because you're talking about 134 years of tradition. And you don't lightly change something as dramatic as the racing surface. These tracks are very expensive. I mean, you're talking probably at least $10 million for a lot of them to put in. And some people say there's still the same number of injuries. They're just different types of injuries.
Jagow: You have all these different surfaces, and handicappers are trying to determine how these horses match up against each other in the Derby. And everybody seems to be throwing up their hands this year. Do you think the uncertainty is good for the business of horse racing or is it bad for business?
Rees: Well, there's anecdotal reports some of the big players have cut back their betting, because the synthetics, they feel like there's just not a consistency. They can't get a handle on it, so they're not betting as much. Jeff Harmon, who's the co-owner of Bob Black Jack, he told me since California -- he lives in California -- went to all synthetic, he's cut his betting 75 percent. But there's also the economy. So, which is it? Probably like a lot of things, it's a variety of factors.
Jagow: All right, Jenny, who's your pick?
Rees: Well, I'm going with one of those synthetic-track horses -- Colonel John. I think that he's good for the dirt and, who knows, maybe he'll actually improve on the dirt. And that would be scary, because he's been a very impressive horse.
Jagow: I totally agree. Jenny Rees from the Louisville Courier-Journal. Thanks for joining us.
Rees: Sure. Happy handicapping.
Jagow: By the way, the Courier-Journal has a great database, if you wanna learn about this year's Derby contenders.
It's called DataTrack and it's on the paper's Web site.