Horses, betting, glory, hats: A transcript of our audio guide to the Kentucky Derby

derby guide

Senior writer Dana O’Neil joined Sports Betting editors Andrew DeWitt and Hannah Vanbiber for a podcast on all things Kentucky Derby. We transcribed the show (and edited a little for length) below for those who prefer the written word. The entire podcast can be found on the New York Times audio app. 

Hannah Vanbiber: The Triple Crown season opens up with Saturday’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs race track. Let’s just dive right in. I grew up watching the Derby on TV every year and betting like a nickel or a quarter on a horse. But this is my first year going in person. You’ve both gone several times, so I’d love to hear what you love about this week so much. What’s special about being there?

Dana O’Neil: Race day obviously is amazing. Like I say, it’s like eye candy. There’s just so much to look at in terms of the people’s outfits and the clothes and the horses and the pageantry. But actually, I even like the days like today leading up to it, when you can go out in the mornings on the backside and you watch the horses work out. You know, it’s beautiful. I mean, it’s the early morning. The sun is beautiful over the spires. It sounds a little bit poetic, and it really kind of is. And you just watch these magnificent athletes, the animals, train. There’s just so much to it. I think that makes it special. And as the years have gone on, it’s just gotten more and more popular.

Andrew DeWitt: What I love about being in person is just the how powerful the animals are and the noise that they create when they run past you and their absolute athleticism, like Dana mentioned, of these animals. And then, of course, there’s so much people watching, but it’s just an incredible event just to take in and understand how these horses really run and how fast they are.

Hannah Vanbiber: Dana, you’ve been out at Churchill Downs for a few days now. I know you’ve been talking to some trainers and owners and found some really great feel-good stories for this year. And one rising to the top is West Saratoga. Not to pull back the curtain too much, but as you’re working on that story, what are some cool early details you have about him?

Read Dana’s story on the Kentucky Derby’s collectible mint julep glasses here

Dana O’Neil: Yeah, horse racing is full of so many great stories, and you can’t trip without finding one sometimes. But this morning I spoke with Larry Demeritte, who is the trainer for West Saratoga. He was born in the Bahamas, learned horse racing from his father, was raised by his grandmother, came over to the United States to chase this dream. At one point he was a he was a groom. He lived in the barns at Churchill Downs, living on next to nothing, worked his way up and now has a horse in the Derby. He’ll be only the second Black trainer since 1951. He’s overcome cancer twice — he still kind of has some lingering issues with his cancer. He bought this horse for $11,000. Which, just to use a comparison, Sierra Leone, one of the early favorites, was $2.3 million. So it’s just this incredibly personable story. He’s a wonderful person to speak to, very positive, despite all the hardships he’s had. He has a big responsibility to try to help other people and raise them up. So, you know, he’s a 50 to 1 shot right now but if you’re looking for a person and a horse to root for, you can’t do much better than West Saratoga.

Hannah Vanbiber: Let’s get a little into the betting weeds. Andrew, I wanted to ask you just kind of in light of all these stories, are there things to watch out for as we’re betting — as casual fans come in, they bet on a horse like West Saratoga with a great story. So what should people be wary of as they’re placing bets and as odds move? Whether it’s an official bet or even a pool with friends.

Andrew DeWitt: I always take horse betting as “it’s a fun thing.” If your mom’s name is in one of the horses or you just love Honor Marie because that’s your granddaughter’s name — go for it. I think placing a $10 or $20 bet on it works. It’s simple fun. I think it’s great engagement for the race and something to talk about with your friends at your Derby party.

Dana O’Neil: Honestly, I sometimes do like those good old hunch bets. I remember one year at the Belmont I was just there to cover the race, but there are all the early run up races, and I think I bet like five races in a row based on someone in my family. And I kept winning, based on absolutely no knowledge of anything. I kind of liken it to the NCAA Tournament pool. My daughter picks the NCAA Tournament winner based on the mascots and wins, I pick it based on basketball knowledge… and lose. So I’m with Andrew. If you got a name, that’s good. You know, there are some great names in this particular Derby. There are some really weird ones, like “T O Password” is named for his owner. But because I covered the Eagles, every time I hear “T.O.,” I think Terrell Owens. So there are all kinds of things that get in your head.

Read Dana’s story on her tour of the final resting places of Kentucky Derby legends here

Hannah Vanbiber: I would like to sadly take us to the darker side of the Derby. Last year, 12 horses died at Churchill Downs. So, Dana, I know you’ve covered a lot of this. You’ve been paying attention. What should we know about this? Was there anything they discovered about Churchill Downs specifically?

Dana O’Neil: Yeah, after that happened, they shut Churchill Downs down and studied it extensively. There’s a new organization, newish, I should say, I guess a year and a half old now — called the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Association (or HISA). And they’re meant to meet national standards because, really, horse racing was very messy and kind of still remains a little bit messy in terms of testing and what is allowed and what isn’t allowed. And HISA was meant to regulate all that. And they did all this testing. They did not find anything at Churchill to blame, for lack of a better phrase, for the deaths of all the horses. One of the trainers who had two horses die, Saffie Joseph, was temporarily suspended by Churchill last year. He has a horse in the Derby this year because nothing was found related to him.

You know, they are doing things differently. They’re testing them more. They’re trying to really crack down on things. I think part of the reason that they moved the draw to Saturday was it required the trainers to get the horses on site by Saturday, which allows for the vets to have more testing and more scrutiny and really be able to check out the horses for a longer stretch of time. So, you know, I hate to say it’s just one of those things — because sometimes it’s not one of those things. Sometimes people are up to nefarious deals, right? But sometimes these clusters happen. And I wake up every morning, I go out to the track here and I’m just crossing my fingers that it goes off without an issue because it was awful last year. Every time I went to my computer, I felt like I was writing something else tragic. And I don’t want to do that. Nobody does.

Hannah Vanbiber: The favorite is Fierceness. He has 5-2 odds. I will ask both of you to just tell me who your favorite is to win. But DeWitt, since you’re a big horses guy, I’m curious if now that we know that Fierceness is coming out of the 17th post, do you still like those odds? Because Dana wrote that the 17th post is 0-44 all-time, so can he win this?

Andrew DeWitt: I think it’s possible because I was looking at the recent history of the post positions. Rich Strike won from 20 in 2022. And prior to that Derby, everyone was like “scratch Rich Strike because no horse is going to win from the outside.” Country House won from 18 in 2019. So there’s some recent history there. I think it requires a special horse. And I think this year Fierceness might be that special horse. Seems like he is going to love coming from the outside and is going to love being outside the pace setters on the inside. This is the fastest horse as a 2-year-old. He’s been the fastest horse as a 3-year-old.  Fierceness is one of those horses who I think a lot of people are automatically going to say, “he’s not winning from the 17.”

Also, if you start from the outside, you can avoid some of the trouble on the inside that some of those horses get in and then can’t make your move. And John Velazquez is a great jockey. He has three Derby wins already. If there’s a veteran jockey who’s able to take this horse through this weird trip — and the Kentucky Derby is a weird race because there are usually 20 horses in it — I think he’s the jockey to do it.

Hannah Vanbiber: Fashion is maybe my favorite part of the Derby, other than the horses themselves. So just to give the listeners a quick walk through, Dana and I both got hats made by Christine A. Moore, who is probably the most famous Kentucky Derby hat maker and is the featured milliner for the Derby. Her clients are the people flying private to the Derby. And she taught us about it all. There’s so much more to it than just buying a hat on Amazon and showing up at the Derby. You have to match your hat and your dress — but which comes first? You need to do a fitting. There are so many different fabrics and trims that you can choose from. Christine even showed me how to pull the brim down to my eyebrow level. It felt so, so odd, and it looked a thousand times better than how I was doing it. But, Dana, were you into this before? And what was it like visiting Christine?

Read Hannah and Dana’s story on their high-end hat buying experience here

Dana O’Neil: The first time I covered the Derby, I was like, “what do I wear?” I had to work, and I thought that just seemed absurd. I remember the first time I ever went to the Derby, I went with four girlfriends. We’re from New Jersey, we don’t wear hats. And we were getting dressed in the hotel room, and we’re looking around like, “You look ridiculous. You look ridiculous.” We took the elevator downstairs, and everyone looks the same. We don’t look ridiculous. And then when I started to cover it and I’m like, “I’m really wearing a hat to work?” And I’m thinking no. And I walk into the press room like, “yep, I wear a hat.” So I’ve always enjoyed it.

I guess I’ve always felt a little awkward. I have a girlfriend that has a hat shop at the shore. I bought some nicer hats, I bought some whatever hats. So this is my first experience with a real [hat maker]. I was impressed like I always am when I meet people who are just talented in ways that I can’t wrap my head around. How she can have such a vision to see things, how she was saying that she can look at a person and then get their personality and figure out what suits them. There really is an art to it. And I do think it’s kind of like one of those things that obviously makes the Derby stand out, and it’s part of the process and part of the race’s allure at this point. So, I’m anxious to pick up my hat and see what it looks like. Like opening the box at a Christmas party. We’ll see what it’s like. And hope I can do it justice.

(Top photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images, Michael Reaves / Getty Images, Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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