By Mike Farrell
The pandemic-delayed Kentucky Derby (G1) finally arrived. Racing fans and handicappers can now debate whether it was worth the wait.
Before delving into the race specifics, let’s note that the day was historically significant on several levels.
First and foremost, it was déjà vu Bob Baffert, all over again.
In a year of incredible ups and downs, literally and figuratively, Baffert once again came up smelling the roses when Authentic dug in for the victory. It was Baffert’s sixth Derby, tying him with the legendary Ben A. Jones for the most victories in America’s greatest race.
Nothing in Baffert’s world has gone smoothly this year. Earlier in the campaign he lost Nadal and Charlatan, his top Derby contenders, to injury. Baffert has been plagued by medication disqualifications, the lingering controversy over Justify’s 2018 Santa Anita Derby (G1) victory and the stunning defeat of Gamine one day earlier in the Kentucky Oaks (G1).
Derby Day produced more drama as Baffert endured what he described as the “craziest 30 minutes I’ve had in racing.”
It started in the saddling paddock where Thousand Words, Baffert’s other Derby runner, flipped over and was scratched. Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s assistant trainer and loyal lieutenant, suffered a broken right wrist in the tumble and will eventually require surgery.
Baffert himself took a seat on the turf course as Authentic had little patience for the post-race victory celebration and acted up. Baffert quickly dusted himself off, suffering only injury to his pride.
“A lot of carnage among the humans,” Baffert joked Sunday morning. “The horses were fine.”
The day was also significant with the Derby run on the first Saturday in September instead of May with only owners and a handful of media admitted. There were about a thousand people there instead of the usual 150,000.
NBC and Churchill Downs deserve credit for capturing the solemnity and eeriness of the day. We certainly didn’t need the cardboard cutouts of faux fans that make some baseball games impossible to watch or take seriously.
Give Manny Franco and John Velazquez tremendous credit for making the most of the outside draws from posts 14 and 15 respectively.
Both riders gave their horses their best shot to win.
Velazquez put Authentic on the lead and resisted the temptation to ask his horse for more when Tiz the Law and Franco came calling on the final turn. He let that rival deliver his best punch before shrugging off the challenge to steadily and decisively pull way in the final furlong.
Although racing wide throughout, Tiz the Law was always within striking distance of the leader. The odds-on favorite had his opportunity, but was clearly second best over the track where he has suffered both career defeats.
Beyond the top two, it wasn’t much of a race. The fact that Mr. Big News, an afterthought entrant, got third at 46-1 says all you need to know about this Derby.
Honor A.P. broke poorly and settled for fourth as the 7-1 second choice. Other runners had some traffic issues but were never seriously involved.
The two headliners did what they could to put on a show but the rest of the field were clearly not ready for prime time.
On to Baltimore
In what feels like a weary march, the 3-year-old season trudges on to Pimlico for the final jewel on Oct. 3.
Is it the Belness? Or the Preakmont?
As the usual middle jewel of the Triple Crown in mid–May, the Preakness (G1) benefits from the presence of the Derby winner and the possible launchpad to a Triple Crown bid.
For many years, it is the Belmont left holding an empty bag when the first two legs of the series produce different winners: the fate this time of the 2020 Preakness.
The race might get the Derby winner. Baffert said Sunday morning that both Authentic and Thousand Words were on target for the Preakness “assuming they’re doing well.”
As for a rematch with Tiz the Law, that seemed doubtful according to trainer Barclay Tagg. While not slamming the door on the Preakness, Tagg seemed more inclined to wait for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
“That would give him two months,” Tagg said. “That would be a lot better.”
According to the folks at Pimlico, potential Preakness runners include Mr. Big News, King Guillermo, Art Collector, Finnick the Fierce, Mystic Guide, Dr. Post, Mongolian Wind, Lebda, Pneumatic and Azul Coast.
The $100,000 Federico Tesio Stakes Monday at Pimlico is a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Preakness.
Taking a big handle hit
How was business at Churchill Downs for the refashioned Oaks-Derby weekend?
In a word: lousy.
Aside from the lost revenue from admissions, parking, reserved seats, dining and concessions, the betting handle nosedived.
The Oaks Day handle from all sources was $30.8 million, a 48.8 percent drop compared to last year.
The news wasn’t much better on Derby Day. The card pulled $128 million in wagers, a 48.9 percentdecline.
Handle on the Derby itself was $79 million compared to $165 million last year.
The lesson: the Derby must return to its normal calendar spot next year with full audience participation. The health of the Triple Crown series, and the sport overall, depends on it.