In a year like no other, it perhaps should not have been surprising that the 146thKentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve was marked by stunning twists and turns as Authentic upset Tiz the Law on Saturday to give Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his record-tying sixth triumph.
Baffert equaled a mark set by Ben Jones that was once thought to be unattainable. “Here we are, the greatest race in the world. I feel very fortunate,” he said in an NBC interview following his third Derby win in six years.
Not that it came easily. Not that anything has ever come easily for the former Quarter Horse trainer who won his first Derby with Silver Charm in 1997 and immediately followed that with Real Quiet. Then there was War Emblem in 2002 before a gap he emphatically ended with Triple Crown champions American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.
Baffert endured a wrenching roller-coaster ride this season before earning his share of history. Nadal and Charlatan, two of his greatest hopes in the spring, were lost to injury. Nadal’s injury was career-ending.
Then, in the Churchill Downs paddock, Baffert endured yet another setback. Thousand Words, a $1 million yearling purchase for Spendthrift Farm and Albaugh Family Stables, reared up when something startled him and fell. That led to his being scratched and left Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s invaluable assistant, with a broken arm.
Still, Baffert had Authentic, co-owned by Spendthrift, MyRaceHorse Stable, Madaket Stables and Starlight Racing. Despite questions about whether the 3-year-old could get the classic distance after he faltered in the stretch and barely held off Ny Traffic by a nose in the July 18 TVG.com Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park, Baffert was quietly confident.
“He was training lights out. He was training better than he ever had,” Baffert said.
The colt was expected to rocket to the lead from the far outside post in a field reduced to 15. The bay son of Into Mischief instead started poorly, forcing Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez to use him early to make the lead.
While Authentic set a solid pace, covering the opening half-mile in 46.41 seconds en route to a final time of 2:00.61, Manny Franco had Tiz the Law in perfect striking position in fourth. He gave the push-button colt his cue as they pounded into the final turn.
The Constitution colt responded as he had in sweeping all four of his previous starts, the most recent of those the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, the opening leg of this year’s re-worked Triple Crown due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the Runhappy Travers Stakes.
Tiz the Law hooked Authentic as they spun out of the final turn. The race was on. Tiz the Law fought to surge past Authentic. He could not. Franco asked Tiz the Law for everything he had. The 3-year-old fought for all he was worth.
There was no getting past Authentic, who edged away to a 1 ¼-length decision in what served as the middle leg of the Triple Crown at fan-free Churchill Downs.
Longshot and late Derby addition Mr. Big News closed to get third, and Honor A. P., who broke slowly and trailed near the back of the field early on, made up ground late to finish fourth.
“Manny was asking him and he was trying,” said Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Tiz the Law's ownership group Sackatoga Stable. “But Authentic ran a great race.” Sackatoga, a small operation based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was denied a second Derby. Knowlton and his partners stepped off a yellow school bus to add a wonderful chapter to Derby lore when Funny Cide, their New York-bred gelding, pulled a surprise in 2003.
Franco knew there was nothing he could have done differently. “I thought I was going to be right there third or fourth, and the trip was perfect,” he said. “No excuse.”
Knowlton looked forward to testing Authentic again in the Oct. 3 Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, another venue that will be without fans.
“We hope he comes out of it healthy and sound,” Knowlton said of Tiz the Law. “Let’s go on to Baltimore. Let’s go to the Preakness.”
Velazquez’s third Derby score coincided with the 200th Grade 1 triumph of his Hall of Fame career. He previously smelled the roses with Animal Kingdom (2011) and Always Dreaming (2017).
Velazquez, 48, recalled a conversation he had with Baffert when both were setting out on the Triple Crown trail. “Bob, from the beginning, said, ‘I’ve got a good one for you.’ This is it.”
Authentic won for the fifth time in six career starts while running the seventh-fastest Derby in history. His only blemish was a runner-up finish to fellow Derby starter Honor A. P. in the June 6 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby.
When Baffert hurried to join Authentic and Velazquez in the winner’s circle, he exclaimed to Velazquez, “Did I have him ready or what?”
As the sun set over the famed twin spires at iconic Churchill Downs, it was clear that no one was ever better at preparing a horse to win the nation’s premier race on the first Saturday in May. Or, for that matter, the first Saturday in September.