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'His Mother Was A Mudder' — How To Bet On A Rainy Derby

Kentucky Derby 2019
Kentucky Derby 2019

All week, Kentucky Derby-goers have been checking the weather forecast, and bracing for a rainy race for a second year in a row. The rain can have a big effect — not just on the crowd’s spirits — but also on the outcome of the race.

This year, crowds came prepared for a downpour. Women wore colorful galoshes, fashionable raincoats, or clear ponchos to show off their dresses. Sarah Rodriguez and her friends took refuge from the rain under a staircase at Churchill Downs, wearing matching monogrammed ponchos.

"We plan for everything, and we started thinking about ponchos and boots six months ago, and we ordered them ahead of time," Rodriguez said.

Last year was the rainiest Derby in history. This year, the rain came slowly, and didn’t dampen spirits or the track much in the afternoon. But as the day went on, the track got wetter — and sloppier. Derby regular Bill Brab says that’s why patience pays off when it comes to betting.  

"Never bet before the race is ready to run. Bet five or 10 minutes before the race," Brab advises.

Some gamblers are not as particular as Brab. There are lots of ways to choose which horse to put your money on.

Kenny Stafford said he fell in love with a horse named "Improbable." Jim Larkin said he picks horses by their looks.

"I like the ones with the fluffy tail, and gray, like me," Larkin said. 

"We picked by the horses names, so nothing too technical going on with us," Rodriguez said.

'His Mother Was A Mudder'

Scott Shapiro is a race and sports analyst at Churchill Downs. He says whenever there’s a rainstorm on the radar, some experienced horse gamblers are going to be looking for a good mudder.

"A mudder is a horse that takes to the slop," Shapiro said. "People think of Seinfeld, right? A mudder is a mudder. Do you know that?"

Shapiro pulls up a famous scene from Seinfeld on his laptop to explain. There’s an episode where Kramer overhears some guys on the subway talking about betting on a horse that might beat his odds on a rainy day. Kramer heads straight to place a bet at an off track betting parlor.

"Oh this baby loves the slop, loves it, eats it up. Eats the slop. Born to slop. His father was a mudder," Kramer explains to an onlooker. "His mother was a mudder."

Shapiro says there might just be something to the idea that a horse’s pedigree will determine how well it runs in the rain. It could even come down to genetics, to factors like the shape of a horse's hoof, or their stride.

"It wouldn’t hard for even a first person watching to see the difference between a horse that’s enjoying it out there," Shapiro said. "That’s what a mudder is, someone enjoying that slop while other horses are like ‘Ah, give me that fast dirt back.’"

Placing A Bet On The Best Mudder

Over by the betting windows, Lindsay Porter, all decked out in a plum-colored dress and matching sky-high hat, places her bet for the derby race — an exacta box, with Improbable, Gamewinner, Tacitus, and Code of Honor.

"With the weather, it’s kind of a crap shoot today, so it’s kind of hard to make my decision," Porter said.

She has her own strategy for picking a good mudder.

"My motto is always to bet the gray horse, the gray horses always seem to run best, especially on a sloppy track, so I really like Tacitus for the final race because of that," Porter said.

The gray horse philosophy may be a common rumor, but Porter says she’s relying on her own observation.

"I’ve grown up coming to the track with my dad, ever since I was little, I always liked the gray horses," Shapiro explained. "I thought they were prettier, and then they’d always win when it was raining, and for some reason I just remembered that."

As the rain continued, the track was downgraded to sloppy — that’s the technical term — and it's exactly what you'd imagine. 

Porter’s favorite, the gray horse Tacitus, finished fourth. Improbable finished fifth. Maximum Security, finished first, his second mud-running win this year. 

But nearly a half hour later, Maximum Security was disqualified for interference, and a truly improbable horse, Country House, took the win with 65 to 1 odds. Maybe he was born to slop.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.

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