Beyond juleps and hats – the Kentucky Derby

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s so great about the Kentucky Derby? Isn’t it just an excuse to wear silly hats and drink mint juleps?


Dear Luke,

You’re absolutely right. For many of us, the Kentucky Derby is an excuse to wear silly hats and drink mint juleps while being thoroughly confused by the arcane world of horse racing. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, in fact, I’ve been happy subsisting solely on silly hats and mint juleps on Kentucky Derby day for years. This time around though, I thought I would try to add a serving of understanding to my meal, just to make it more well rounded.

The Kentucky Derby is one of the three big races in the United States that make up the so-called Triple Crown of horse racing. It’s the first and most prestigious of the bunch. The 1.25 mile race been run every year since 1875. Its long tradition, somewhat rare in this country, is part of its appeal, but for the horses owners and racing fans, the biggest draw is money. The winning horse will get $1.24 million dollars and that’s without considering the largest source of money in horse racing: gambling. Betting on horse races is a tradition that certainly predates the Kentucky Derby and it’s still going strong. You should expect that over $125 million dollars will have been bet on the race by the time it begins. This year, the race will be televised on NBC. You can tune in at 4 p.m. ET for lots of talk about the race, the hats, and the juleps but the race itself will begin at 6:24. It’s probably a good idea to turn it on at least a few minutes early. The race only lasts two minutes, so turning it on a couple minutes late could be enough to make you miss the whole thing.

Rivaling even the silly hats as a Kentucky Derby tradition is, of course, gambling. I wrote a whole post about gambling yesterday with everything you need to understand how betting on horse racing works. This morning I added a second post, where you can test your knowledge through the gift of musical theater. It’s easy to bet on horse racing. It’s actually the only sport in the United States that is completely legal to bet on online. That said, it might be more fun to bet just with your friends. You can make up your own form of betting by using your (potentially newfound) understanding of odds. Pick horses and reward the winner based on the odds. If someone picks a long shot 40/1 horse and they win, maybe you all collectively pay for the next 40 beers or chicken wings they buy or maybe even a bouquet of that many roses. That will give people a good incentive to pick a favorite (likely to win but may only get them a couple of beers/chicken wings/roses) and equally a good incentive to pick a horse that is unlikely to win.

Another great element of horse racing is the names. Horses often have absurd names. There is a reason for this or at least an explanation. Horses have to have names that are not just unique but also easily distinguishable when race announcers say their names. Quick aside on race announcers. They are an amazing mix of auctioneer, square dance caller, and huckster. To get a feel for it, watch this call by Tom Durkin:

You can imagine that if horses had similar names, all hell would break loose as people who gambled a significant amount of money on a horse named The Rural Juror ran up to collect their winners only to bump into another group of convinced winners who had bet on the actual winning horse, The Plural Furor. As many limitations do, the strict prohibition on similar sounding names for horses had led to some wonderful comedy. Take, for example, this race:

However you decide to partake in the race today, do it safely and enjoyably!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer


What musical theater can teach us about betting on horses

Betting and horses go together like two degenerate peas in a pod. I wrote about this yesterday in our post on how to understand gambling on horse races. Once you’ve picked up the basic elements of any new skill, the first thing to do is to test it in a real world situation. In the realm of gambling, that often means losing lots of money. A great alternative is to watch a race with an experienced gambler and make some imaginary bets with her so she can tally up your winnings/losings at the end to see what you would have won or more likely lost. If you’re like me, you might not be able to find an experienced gambler. The only ones I know are characters in a musical… so I figured, why not test our knowledge on them??!

I’ve annotated the lyrics to one of the great horse racing songs of all time, Fugue for Tinhorns from the musical Guys and Dolls. Each singer’s line goes in and out, but to simplify things, I’ve stuck with the loudest. The guy in the center, who starts the song is improbably named Nicely-Nicely Johnson. The shorter man who prefers the horse, Valentine, is Benny Southstreet and the third man is Rusty Charlie. Listen to the song and see if you can decipher all of the horse racing betting terms. If you need help, look at the annotated lyrics below.

I got the horse right here.
The name is Paul Revere and here’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear,
can do, can do. This guy says the horse can do.
If he says the horse can do, can do, can do.
You other two guys should listen to me, because I know which horse is going to win. His name is Paul Revere and I have received information suggesting that as long as it doesn’t rain (some horses run better on a wet racetrack than others) he should win.

I’m picking Valentine, ’cause on the morning line,
the guy has got him figured at five to nine.
I’m ignoring your advice and betting on a horse named Valentine. His odds are 5/9 which means that if the race were run 14 times, he should win nine times or 64% of the time. That’s a big favorite, no wonder the little guy in the grey hat wants to bet on him.

But look at Epitaph, he wins it by a half,
according to this here in the Telegraph.
Rusty Charlie prefers a horse named Epitaph whose odds he does not quote but who the horse racing tout (columnist who predicts the outcome of races) in a New York City newspaper claims will win.

For Paul Revere I’ll bite, I hear his foot’s all right.
Of course it all depends if it rained last night.
Nicely-Nicely remains determined to go with his initial horse, although he’s still a bit nervous about the weather. And now a new concern, the health of the horse’s foot has cropped up. I’m not sure our friend here is the most convincing.

I know it’s Valentine, the morning work looks fine,
you know the jockey’s brother’s a friend of mine.
Benny is always looking for an edge and he thinks he’s got some valuable inside information. The “morning work” would be a pre-race workout the horses run. Despite this exercise being likely closed to the public, real gamblers like these guys have connections, like the brother of  Valentine’s jockey or rider for the day.

Just a minute boys. I got the feed box noise,
it says the great grandfather was Equipoise.
I wasn’t positive what “feed box noise” was but this guy on argues fairly convincingly that it’s slang for scuttlebutt or gossip that people would have traded around the horse’s feed box. That makes sense to me. The internet was also helpful in teaching me that Equipoise was a famous horse who raced in the early 1930s. A horse’s genealogy, often referred to as its bloodlines, is of intense interest to gamblers, who generally feel as if specific characteristics like a desire to run, a willingness to obey the jockey, or a dislike for being hemmed in by other horses are passed down from one horse to another over generations. 

I told you Paul Revere, now this is no bum steer,
it’s from a handicapper that’s real sincere.
Poor Nicely-Nicely. He’s still trying to convince the other two that his advice (steer) is good or at least not bad (bum). His argument is that the handicapper (tout, horse racing prognosticator) is sincere. Which seems like just a terrible argument to me. Who cares about sincerity? What we need is accuracy!

I’m picking Valentine, ’cause on the morning line,
the guy has got him figured at five to nine.
Benny is sticking to his guns.

So make it Epitaph, he wins it by a half,
according to this here in the Telegraph.
As is Rusty!

Epitaph. Valentine. Paul Revere.
I got the horse right here!

Thanks for reading and good luck,
Ezra Fischer

How do people gamble on horse racing?

Dear Sports Fan,

How do people gamble on horse racing? Like most people, I’ll watch the Kentucky Derby or one of the other Triple Crown races if its on but I never understand the gambling talk. Can you help?


Dear Kelly,

As with many sports, but perhaps even more so in horse racing, one of the primary attractions is gambling. There are lots of ways to bet on a horse race, so many in fact, that to the uninitiated it may seem like an impossible task. There are really only two key things that need to be deciphered to have a basic understanding of how to gamble on horse racing.

The first is how to understand odds. Each horse has odds expressed as a combination of two numbers that can be written as “40 to 1” or “40/1”. These numbers are simultaneously an expression of what people think is going to happen and how lucrative betting on that horse could be. The easiest way to think about this is by fitting the numbers into the sentence: If the race were run [sum of two numbers] times, you should expect this horse to win [second number] times. As you sub the numbers in, you can see why betting on a 40/1 horse (one that, if the race were run 41 times, should be expected to win only once) is called a long shot bet or one that is unlikely to pay off. A bet on the favorite, this year a horse named American Pharoah who currently has 5/2 odds (if the race were run seven times, you should expect him to win twice), is more likely to win. That’s why the payouts also vary depending on the odds. A long shot bet on a 20 to 1 horse will typically pay $21 for every one you bet while a 5/2 bet like the one you’d place on the favorite this year will typically pay only $7 for every one you bet. There’s no need to memorize the payouts but if you want to cheat sheet, ABC News has a handy one here.

The second piece of gambling on horses to learn is that there are several different things that you can bet on. This is a little like the prop bets that are so popular around the Super Bowl. In horse racing, betting on which horse is going to win is just the start of things. There are also bets called Place or Show that give you a little flexibility in case your horse doesn’t win. Betting on a horse to place means you win if they come in first or second while show means you win if they come in first, second, or third. With each additional piece of flexibility, you stand to win less though. The other main vector of betting is in the other direction — betting on your ability to predict not just which horse will come in first but also which will come in second, third, fourth, or even fifth. As you add horses that must finish the race in a specific spot, your chances of winning go down and your potential payout goes up. The name for each bet also gets increasingly silly. Predicting the top two exactly is called an Exacta, three a Trifecta, four a Superfecta, and five a Super High-Five.

Unlike other sports, where it’s usually recommended not to split your rooting interests for the sake of gambling (watching a game in which you’ve bet money against your favorite team is a confusing and disheartening experience) at a horse race, it’s often more fun to make multiple bets. If you take a liking to two or three horses, it can sometimes be better to bet different combinations of them in exactas or even trifectas than to bet them straight-up.

Now that you have a basic understanding of some of the key concepts and terms in gambling on horse racing, you can go off and lose (or win!) some money or you can test your knowledge. Keep your eyes peeled to Dear Sports Fan for our upcoming annotated version of the classic horse racing gamblers song, Fugue for Tinhorns from the musical Guys and Dolls.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What Sounds are Real in Sports?

Have you ever watched a sporting event on television and thought, “what sounds are real in sports?” What about the squeaking of basketball shoes on a wood court? How about the grunt of a boxer taking a blow to the ribs? The sound of a hockey puck hitting the boards? Is that really what the game sounds like? Are they real sounds just amplified to be heard over the crowd or are television sound engineers playing tricks on us by adding sampled sounds in? Would it matter if they were?

And they’re off! But what is that sound?

This is the subject of an episode of 99% Invisible called The Sound of Sports. 99% Invisible is an independent podcast about “design, architecture, and the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” It’s a great podcast and I enjoy a lot of their work. This episode is actually a rebroadcast of a show produced for the BBC by Peregrine Andrews. It delves deeply into that 99% to explore how sound designers shape our experience of sports on television.

The first two thirds of the podcast cover how sound engineers have revolutionized the sports experience over the past thirty years or so by cleverly miking and then mixing different sounds of sporting events into the television feed. I particularly loved hearing from one engineer about how his childhood desire to amplify an acoustic guitar came back to him when approaching the problem of how to convey the sounds of gymnastic in the olympics. Like with his childhood guitar, he took a  contact mic and slapped it right onto the most resonant part of the event — the balance beam. As you might expect, the show is lushly illustrated with clips from sports broadcasts. My favorite is a thirty second clip of two coxswains from the biggest rowing race of the year in England, an annual race between Oxford and Cambridge known just as “the boat race.” Coxswains are people who sit in the back of the boat facing the eight rowers and SCREAM. Their job is to set a rhythm, inform the rowers of how they’re doing, to know tactically when to speed up and when to stay steady and to motivate through a mixture of enthusiasm and intimidation. It’s amazing to hear just the sound from the two coxswains in this race, a man and a woman, scream their hearts out.

Things really get moving in the last twenty minutes or so as the show explores the aspects of sports sounds that are fake or “enhanced” as the engineers like to say. For me, the most important message in the segment came from an engineer who was explaining how the familiar sound of a basketball swishing through a hoop is real but never heard in person. He says “Most of us involved in sports sports try to… enhance the experience. We tread the middle road between what’s real and what’s unreal.” What I love about this line of thought is that the more I learn, the less clear what’s right and what’s wrong. At first, it seems wrong to change how the game sounds so materially. Does it matter if the basketball swish is real or sampled if its amplified so far out of proportion to reality? Maybe a little. But then you hear about the challenge of mixing the sound for a rowing race in the olympics. The course is long and winding. The rowers move fast. Worst of all, in order to capture video of the event for television, the race is surrounded by four motor boats and a helicopter, each of which makes enough noise to drown the sounds of the race out. Together, they produce a cacophony of sound to depress even the most truth-devoted sound engineer. So, what do they do? They go out earlier in the day, when the river is quiet, and record the sounds of a few random people rowing. Then they mix the sound, layer it with some cheering, and off they go.

By far my favorite story of fake sounds in sports is that the familiar sound of hooves hitting the ground in a gallop during  a horse race is actually a slowed down clip of a herd of buffalo stampeding. The sound engineer who spilled that trick of the trade chuckled and said he thought everyone had probably been using the same clip for the last thirty years! I just love that. It reminds me of an episode of the Simpsons my friends and I loved to quote in high school. Some guys are filming a movie (yes, within a cartoon television show) and they need to film a cow. They use a horse. Someone asks, “Uh, sir, why don’t you just use real cows?” The reply is “Cows don’t look like cows on film. You gotta use horses.” Another question comes, “What do you do if you want something that looks like a horse?” And the payoff is “Uh, usually we just tape a bunch of cats together.”

Usually, when cats get taped together (metaphorically, of course) in sports sound engineering, it seems to be to heighten the reality of the sporting event for far away viewers. Towards the end of the podcast, another possible reason surfaces and it’s what I was left thinking most about after the show. One of the key interviewees in the show is a sound engineer who works for EA Sports on sports video games. Doing sounds for video games, he’s totally free to use whatever fake sounds he wants, and he takes full advantage of that. For example, in a boxing video game, he layers in the sound of celery snapping to evoke ribs breaking when a video game boxer takes a body blow. He points out that televised sports are actually competitive with his games. This is true. As a sports fan and a sports video game fan, there have been times when I’ve switched off a boring game to instead play a sports video game. Part of this competition is a sound effects arms race. The fake sounds in video games sound more “real” than the real sounds of miked sporting events. To keep their viewers, television stations must match the reality of its fake competition!

99% Invisible is a good show to subscribe to and this episode in particular was a great hour of listening. Check it out today!