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Before The Races, Test Your Kentucky Derby Knowledge


The Kentucky Derby will be run later today at Churchill Downs in Louisville. But before you start mixing your mint juleps, we thought it might be helpful to delve into a bit of Derby trivia. That means, of course, we turn to our man with all the answers, correct or incorrect, A.J. Jacobs. A.J. is an editor at large at Esquire magazine, and he once read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica to try to make himself smarter than the rest of us. And we'll see how that went as we chat with him now. Welcome, A.J.

A.J. JACOBS: Thank you for having me.

NEARY: (Laughter) So let's start out with the names of some of the horses. There are some really good ones this year - Nyquist, Gun Runner, Exaggerator, My Man Sam, Oscar Nominated, and I like this one, Suddenbreakingnews. So are there any rules governing names?

JACOBS: There are rules. It has to be a maximum of 18 characters. And there are no cuss words allowed, but, as you might have noticed, slightly inappropriate names do slip through. So in the past in horse racing, we've had a horse named Boxers or Briefs, along the same line, Thong or Panties. Bad puns are also tolerated. There was a horse named Fifty Shades of Hay. And I'm sure the horse - even the horse was like, oh.

NEARY: You know, I always assumed that the Kentucky Derby, or the word derby, was always just part of horse racing. I never had any idea that there could have been another name. But apparently that's the case. Explain that.

JACOBS: It was all due to a coin toss. In 1780, there were two English gentlemen who founded a horse race. And the - they decided to toss a coin to figure out what to name it. And if it had gone the other way, we'd be running the Kentucky Bunbury after Charles Bunbury. But instead, the Earl of Derby won the coin toss and hence, the Kentucky Derby.

NEARY: The Kentucky Bunbury would've been the other option?

JACOBS: Feel free to call it that if you so choose.

NEARY: Of course, horse racing involves betting. And any time you have betting, you're likely to have cheating. And I know you unearthed a great scandal. It didn't happen at the Kentucky Derby. It happened in Australia, the great Australian horse swapping scandal of 1984. Tell us about that.

JACOBS: Horse swapping is when you secretly replace a slow horse with a fast horse. And the most famous one was this one in 1984. The problem was the horses looked nothing like each other. It was literally a horse of another color. The replacement horse was dark and the original was light. So the owner splashed white paint on the new horse. But then the paint came off when the horse ran and got all sweaty. And everyone said, wait a second.

NEARY: It sounds like a Marx Brothers movie (laughter).

JACOBS: (Laughter) Exactly. I think they had one about horse racing.

NEARY: I mean, what made them think it would work? I can't imagine.

JACOBS: Yeah, they weren't the sharpest.

NEARY: All right, so now tell us about the most powerful horse in history. And this, as I understand it, goes all the way back to Roman times?

JACOBS: Right. This was, I think, the most politically influential horse. So it was proudly Incitatus, which is the horse of the Roman emperor Caligula. And according to historians of the time, his stable was made of marble, he had a collar of gemstones and his meals were oats mixed with gold flakes. And senators were forced to dine with him. And according to legend, Caligula planned to appoint him counsel before the emperor was assassinated. So it's almost as bizarre as the 2016 United States presidential election.

NEARY: (Laughter) A.J., I have to say, at least when it comes to horse racing, you got your money out of reading that Encyclopedia Britannica.

JACOBS: (Laughter).

NEARY: You did pretty good. I don't know if it's all real, but it's - the stories are great.

JACOBS: We'll find out. You know, we'll find out with angry letters. Yeah, look forward to them.

NEARY: Esquire magazine's A.J. Jacobs. Thanks so much, A.J.

JACOBS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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