It would be hard to blame Bob Baffert and Jimmy Barnes for wanting to just get outta Dodge with their trophies and their winner’s checks and their prize wristwatches and get back to some semblance of normal.
Dodge, by the way, is not Churchill Downs. It is not Louisville, Kentucky. Dodge is 2020. And instead of “Bob Baffert and Jimmy Barnes,” just fill in all our names.
Specifically for Baffert and Barnes, the before and after of their victory with Authentic in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby was soooo 2020. In between, though, it was as sweet a two minutes – give or take three-fifths of a second – as this pustule of a year will allow.
Racing quickly to the lead from the outermost draw, Authentic (8-1) outran his 15 rivals to the first turn, established the fastest Derby fractions in seven years and then held off an eyeball-to-eyeball challenge from odds-on favorite Tiz The Law (4-5) to win the pandemic-delayed renewal of America’s biggest race.
It was the third Derby victory for Velázquez and the sixth for Baffert, who tied the record set by fellow Hall of Fame trainer Ben Jones between 1938 and 1952. For Authentic, it was appropriately a 1¼-length win at 1¼ miles, a distance that critics (read: I) did not think he could cover victoriously.
But the final chapter of this drama began with a thud involving Authentic’s stable mate and Barnes. Baffert’s longtime assistant suffered a broken arm when Thousand Words (10-1) reared and fell onto his left side shortly after entering the paddock. The colt popped right back up and was “absolutely fine,” veterinarian Dr. Kathy Anderson said. “Not a scratch on him.” But by rule for fallen horses he was automatically removed from the race before he could be saddled.
While Thousand Words went back to the track stable, Barnes was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. He did not get to celebrate the victory first hand with the rest of Team Baffert.
“He should be here with me,” Baffert told NBC Sports as he fought back tears right after the race. “I told John, ‘Do it for Jimmy.’ We were yelling, ‘Do it for Jimmy’ the whole way.”
In the infield winner’s circle after the race, Baffert himself took a tumble when Authentic did not like the floral arrangement of the traditional roses. No, seriously. He did not.
“The garland of roses had a long, red ribbon at the end,” Baffert said. “It was hitting his hind leg, and it was spooking him. Every time he felt it, he spun around. He was like a bowling ball, and he bowled us all down.”
Wearing a blue suit, the Hall of Fame trainer fell Baff-ackward onto the grass. He, too, popped right back up and was unhurt.
“I was lucky,” he said. “The turf course is pretty soft here. I was probably more embarrassed than anything.”
As Baffert predicted in the weeks leading up to the Derby, the race was run at a hot pace. Authentic set fractions of 46.41 seconds for the first half-mile and 1:10.23 for the first three-quarters on the way to the fastest finishing time for a Derby since 2001. Granted, it was the same track that was spitting out stakes records the past two days. Nevertheless, those (read: me) who thought that such a pace would be suicidal might as well have forecast snow on Louisville’s sunny, 81-degree Saturday.
“It was a fast pace, and he never came back,” Tiz The Law’s lead owner Jack Knowlton said. “Tiz has been able to pass horses all year. Basically (jockey Manny Franco) hasn’t had to ask him. Manny was asking him today, and he was trying. Today he ran into one he couldn’t get by. We probably ran quite a bit farther, farther than we got beat.”
According to Trakus, Tiz The Law ran 23 more feet than Authentic. The 1¼-length difference is about 10 feet. That would seem to mean that the strategy to keep Tiz The Law away from rail traffic and even the draw of post 17 might have cost him the race against a ground-saving effort from Velázquez.
“It’s always the concern that you let the horse do way too much in the first part of the race,” Velázquez said. “You like to save a little bit of horse for the end. Around the turn I let him get loose where he was comfortable. When the (trailing) horses got next to him, I got after him, and he responded right away. Bob keep telling me just save that eighth of a mile. (Tiz The Law) got head and head with me, but he never got past me.”
“We planned this out at Jeff Ruby’s the last couple nights,” Baffert said. “I can’t tell you what it was, because there’s still another race to run.”
That would be the Preakness on Oct. 3, when Baffert will try to add to his record seven victories, and Authentic may expect a rematch with Tiz The Law.
“As long as he comes out of it healthy and sound, let’s go to Baltimore,” Knowlton said. “Let’s go to the Preakness.”
Late entry Mr. Big News (46-1) closed from 10th to finish third, 3¼ lengths back. Honor A. P. (7-1), ridden by Authentic’s last rider Mike Smith, also had a strong close to finish fourth ahead of Max Player (19-1) in fifth.
Winning bettors include those who hopped on the Authentic bandwagon last November. That was when the Into Mischief colt won his debut at Del Mar, and William Hill opened him at 50-1 in its Derby futures. That was also where he closed in the first pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Aside from one global flash to 55-1, he was never longer than that again.
Since Authentic’s victory – and Tiz The Law’s loss – finished a Churchill card that had 13 favorites lose 14 races, the 20-cent Pick 6 Jackpot ending with the Derby paid $278,513.32 to the holders of the six correct tickets.
While Baffert was caught up in the emotion of Barnes’s injury, Velázquez was thinking right after the race of his family back in New York.
“I want to cry,” he told NBC Sports while he was riding Authentic back to the winner’s circle. “My family is usually here every year with me. But now we have the COVID-19, and my mother is going through chemotherapy. I know they’re happy and praying for me, though. It was worth it.”
The winning connections include B. Wayne Hughes’s Spendthrift Farm and the more than 3,200 people who bought $206 partnerships via MyRacehorse.com, making Authentic the Green Bay Packers of horse racing.
“I’ve got family members who own this horse,” Baffert said. “(Skiing champion) Bode Miller was checking in before and Walker Buehler from the Dodgers. They were all asking ‘How are we looking?’ I said, ‘If they give us the lead it’s adiós.’”
That would be a fonder farewell than the one to 2020, a year that has seen Baffert endure the injuries to two former Derby contenders – Nadal and Charlatan – and his own 15-day suspension. That was for the positive drug tests from Charlatan and Gamine in Arkansas in May. While he appeals the suspension, Baffert is allowed to keep training.
“This is the craziest year ever,” Baffert said, speaking for himself – or everyone. “Do we have a cloud following us? When Jimmy broke his arm I said it doesn’t end. I can’t take this anymore.”
Then Baffert welled up again speaking in a familiar but rather empty news-conference room to reporters covering the Derby digitally from all over the world rather than at Churchill Downs.
“It’s been a rollercoaster year,” he said. “Thankfully it’s the love of the horses that keeps me going. They’re the best therapy a human can have, and I love being around them.”
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently for big races like the Kentucky Derby. He also hosts the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, which is posted Fridays at VSiN.com/podcasts. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.