So when Tiz the Law pounced near front-running Authentic around the turn toward home and when they ran together through the stretch and when Authentic staved him off all the way to win by a length and a quarter in a rapid 2:00.61, horse racing had to settle for a more esoteric slice of history. Rather than a Triple Crown prospect for Oct. 3 at the rescheduled Preakness, it has only the second trainer across 146 years with six Kentucky Derby triumphs.
It had been 68 years since Ben A. Jones, a Missourian who started on bush tracks in the west and Mexico, rang up a sixth Derby win when he prepared 1952 Kentucky Derby champion Hill Gail. For all that time, the late Jones had sat atop the list deathlessly until Authentic’s sturdy triumph in a race with almost zero fans because of a pandemic elevated Bob Baffert alongside.
“I cannot believe I’m sitting up here,” the 67-year-old said on the interview dais, “because I have so much respect for Tiz the Law.” He soon added, “I really thought Tiz the Law was unbeatable.” He marveled about an unpredictable year in which his stalwarts, such as Nadal and Charlatan, fell away with springtime injuries. He didn’t even mind that Authentic had bumped a few people in the winner’s circle and sent his trainer briefly sprawling. And he lavished praise on the wildly respected John Velazquez, the 48-year-old jockey from Puerto Rico who logged a third Derby win, following upon Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Always Dreaming in 2017.
Velazquez, after all, had a saddle seat for a two-horse duel.
“I saw that white face next to me,” Velazquez said of Tiz the Law’s handsome mug, “and I thought, ‘Okay, we’ll go.’ ”
“I had the trip I expected,” Tiz the Law jockey Manny Franco said.
“Every time I asked him for more, he gave me more,” Velazquez said of Authentic.
“I just couldn’t go by the other horse,” Franco said.
“He never passed him,” Velazquez said of the two.
“The other horse fought so hard,” Franco said of Authentic.
Said Barclay Tagg, the 82-year-old Tiz the Law trainer and helmsman to Funny Cide’s Derby and Preakness wins of 2003, “Baffert’s hard to beat.”
The 9-1 third choice outdid the 4-5 favorite, with longshot Mr. Big News in third and second choice Honor A. P. in fourth.
It marked a rowdy finish to a silent day. The race began in silence beneath a plane dragging a message that read: ARREST THE COPS WHO KILLED BREONNA TAYLOR, the Louisville emergency medical technician who died at 26 in March in a bungled police raid of her home. It began just after durable protests over Taylor’s death reached their 101st day and blared outside a Churchill Downs shorn of its usual 150,000 revelers because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It began from a new starting gate capable of holding 20 horses rather than the old 14-and-six setup, with Tiz the Law posted outside all the 15 entries except one, who happened to be Authentic. It began in pristine weather that came as a sort of meteorological sick joke after three straight years of full crowds and full-on rain. It began after the reading of a quote from 19th-century abolitionist, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass, with a moment of silence to recognize racial inequity and a hope “for a more just country to truly take root, grow and flourish,” then with the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” a tradition Churchill Downs had mulled discontinuing because of its echoes of slavery.
Then it began as 60 hoofs thundered forward as track announcer Travis Stone noted “the sound of the Derby echoing through Churchill Downs!” All day long, through the races and the quiet, the sound of whips on horseflesh during stretch runs had proved audible in the grandstand.
Then Tiz the Law, who had won six of seven lifetime races with uncommon command, including a dominant Belmont Stakes on June 20, sat fourth around the first turn, third at the end of the backstretch and second heading toward home. “Manny was asking him, and he was trying,” said Tiz the Law owner Jack Knowlton, whose ownership group of Funny Cide had enchanted the sport for its humility and the school bus it rode to the track. “Authentic ran a great race. We’re going to see a big speed figure in there, and he deserved to win.”
He deserved to win, and suddenly Authentic had a fifth win in six starts, his lone loss a runner-up turn in the Santa Anita Derby in June. He had a fresh thrill for his principal owner, powerhouse Spendthrift Farm of Lexington, and his 4,600-plus micro-owners who bought in through an app. He had an answer for his previous tendency to piddle around some and go wayward in the stretch, as in the Haskell at Monmouth in New Jersey in July. “He’s getting better and better,” Baffert said, and in turn his sire, Into Mischief, the top sire of 2019, keeps getting hotter and hotter.
Before all of that, Tiz the Law had roared through 2020 winning uninterruptedly, from the Holy Bull and Florida Derby at Gulfstream to a rescheduled Belmont Stakes to the Travers at Derby distance at Saratoga in August. That meant he reached the Derby having answered already the eternal pre-Derby question about whether a horse can manage a mile and a quarter. While he won and won and won and won, Baffert’s Derby chances seemed to fade, with Nadal’s and Charlatan’s hopes going from soaring to dashed, from wins in the two divisions of the Arkansas Derby on May 2 to absence from the entire Triple Crown that began June 20 at Belmont.
For a chunk of time, even, he just set aside Authentic for two weeks, let the younger-than-most 3-year-old walk around. “He was a May foal,” Baffert said, noting Authentic’s birth month. “He was late.” They got going after that, but by the time they got to the first Saturday in September and the Derby, they came as both overshadowed and one of the two horses Baffert entered.
The other, Thousand Words, had to scratch suddenly when he flipped during preparations in the paddock Saturday. His antics broke the arm of assistant trainer Jim Barnes, who had gone off for treatment. “The good news,” veterinarian Kathleen Anderson said, “is the horse is absolutely fine. He did misbehave in the paddock and was scratched as he fell over onto his side.” She proclaimed him “cleared for service without a scratch upon him.”
That wasn’t quite true of Barnes, so a Kentucky Derby that looked and sounded like none of its 145 predecessors wound up with Baffert’s cracking voice ringing through the empty grounds. As Baffert said after his wins now range from Silver Charm in 1997 through Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem in 2002, American Pharoah in 2015, Justify in 2018 and Authentic in a strange 2020, “I told [Velazquez], ‘Do it for Jimmy.’ ”
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