In a year like no other, the other horse won.
Authentic proved his doubters wrong and led gate to wire, capturing the 146th Kentucky Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The win gave trainer Bob Baffert his record sixth Kentucky Derby trophy, tieing Ben Jones, who won his sixth Derby with Hill Gail in 1952. Jones also trained Triple Crown winner Whirlaway (1941).
It was a third Derby score for jockey John Velazquez. He previously won the race with Always Dreaming (2017) and Animal Kingdom (2011). The win also was the jockey’s 200th Grade One win, making him one of only three riders to achieve that milestone. It was his first ride on Authentic.
Mr. Big News, a 50-1 longest shot, had a big race finishing third. Honor A.P. with Mike Smith aboard was the second choice, but was well behind for most of the race and finished a disappointing fourth.
“I can’t believe I’m sitting here,” said Baffert. “I have so much respect for Tiz the Law. He looked unbeatable, like he had Triple Crown written all over him.”
The race was expected to crown favorite Tiz the Law on a glide path to a possible 14th Triple Crown with a win in the Oct. 3 Preakness at Pimlico. The son of Constitution entered the race at 3-5 odds, the shortest in Derby history.
“The break was going to be the key,” explained Baffert in the post-race press conference. “We sort of knew how the race was going to work out.”
The son of 2019 leading sire Into Mischief broke swiftly from the far outside post with Tiz the Law alongside. Tiz, a winner in five of his six races, also broke well from post 17, the only gate to never produce a Derby winner. As Tiz came around the far turn into the home stretch, he pulled alongside Authentic, targeting the lead as expected.
Then Authentic did the entirely unexpected. Urged on by Velazquez’s left hand—we’ll get to that later—he found that other gear and pulled ahead by a length and a quarter with the favored challenger on his tail every step of the last quarter-mile. It stayed that way across the finish line.
“That race was won by Johnny V,” said Baffert.
Velazquez, for his part, credited Authentic.
“We got to give it to the horse,” he countered. “He let me do whatever I wanted. Every time I asked him for more, he gave me more.”
The thrilling race was the only thing about Derby 146 that approached a normal Derby day. Protesters marched and chanted outside for racial justice while a phalanx of police in riot gear stood watch. The Churchill grandstand that normally hosts up to 170,000 screaming fans was COVID empty.
Inside the near-vacant cavern, the traditional live playing of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” by the University of Louisville band, accompanied by the crowd’s singing of the racially tinged lyrics, was replaced by a lone bugler eerily sounding the official Kentucky State song following a moment of silence acknowledging the protests.
Then it got weird.
Thousand Words, a well-regarded colt drawing a lot of wagering after the earlier scratch of three horses, also was entered for Baffert.
While being saddled in the paddock as post time approached, the horse reared and flipped over on his side. Baffert’s long-time assistant, Jimmy Barnes, suffered a broken arm trying to cushion his own fall. The horse was fine but immediately scratched.
“I’ve never been this loaded (with good horses) at the start of the year,” said Baffert. Nadal was at one time considered a pre-Derby favorite, as was Charlatan, a swift son of Speightstown. Both were lost to minor injuries and have not run in months.
The loss of Thousand Words left Baffert’s lighter loaded year down to only one, the one surrounded by the most doubt.
Authentic was no slouch. He entered the Derby with a 4-1-0 record in his five starts. His only place was in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). He won the Sham Stakes (G3) and the San Felipe Stakes (G2), both at Santa Anita, Baffert’s home base. He then journeyed east to New Jersey’s Monmouth Park and won the Haskell Stakes (G1) in a photo finish.
But the colt was nearly caught at the wire by a fast-closing Ny Traffic, also a Derby entry. The Kentucky Derby is a 10-furlong mile and a quarter. At 9 furlongs, the Haskell was the longest race Authentic had run. He appeared to tire at the end leading to the suspicion he could not stay the longer Derby distance. Starting from the far outside only increased the doubts.
Baffert made some critical changes. He noticed Authentic was leaning into the rail as jockey Mike Smith used a right hand whip in the Haskell. Baffert and Smith have a close, but sometimes-on, sometimes-off trainer-rider relationship. He replaced Hall-of-Fame rider Smith with Velazquez for the Derby.
Then he tweaked his race instructions to his new rider. “When we were planning the race, I told Johnny that to keep the horse’s attention, always go to the left hand.” Velazquez did just that and, sure enough, the horse’s attention never wavered.
“He’s a little quirky,” confirmed Velazquez. “But I don’t worry about those things. I get on the horse and I have confidence I can do the job. You have to let the horse know you are a partner. I never rode him before, but I let him know I felt comfortable with him.”
Even after the Derby win, the weirdness continued in the Winner’s Circle when Authentic got a bit too excited.
Baffert explained with a laugh:
“He’s a quirky horse, that’s why he runs with earplugs. The garland of roses—I’ve never seen this—had a long red ribbon that was hitting his hind leg. It was spooking him. Every time he felt it, he spun around, like a bowling ball. He got me. I was probably more embarrassed than anything when I hit the ground. No more ribbons.”
Sunday morning Baffert told The Baltimore Sun Authentic and Thousand Words are both fine and would remain at Churchill to train, targeting the Preakness.
On a more serious note, the inevitable question arose about his reaction to the ongoing protests in Louisville following the shooting death of Breonna Taylor Mar. 13 by plainclothes Louisville police.
Baffert said he was absorbed with Derby jitters but added, using his own family as a reference, “America has always been a close-knit family. We need to get back to that.”
Puerto Rican native Velazquez, who along with other jockeys took a knee before a recent race at Belmont, went further. He removed and showed a garter he and “most of the guys in the race” wore during the Derby, a black band on which was written “EQUALITY FOR ALL.”
That wasn’t the only sartorial surprise. Velazquez did not wear the silks of Authentic’s majority owner, Spenthrift Farm. Instead he dressed in black silks imprinted with a stylized horse’s head and inscribed “MyRaceHorse.”
Founded in 2018 by CEO Michael Behrens, MyRacehorse offered public equity shares in Authentic on its website starting at $206. There were over 4,600 shareholders at post time. It owns a 12.5 percent share in its Derby winner. It was formed in cooperation with Spendthrift Farm’s B. Wayne Hughes. The partnership will continue through Authentic’s stud career. Though there are a few familiar celebrity shareholders, the intent is to attract ordinary young people to racing by offering low-priced micro shares in horses.
“Wayne Hughes has so much passion for what he does,” noted Baffert. “I am so happy for him. I told his daughter back in January ‘I’m gonna win the Derby for your dad.’ Things happen for a reason. That’s why I’m here, things are supposed to happen.”
Baffert’s Derby win is a bright spot in an otherwise clouded year.
He saddled Charlatan to a first-place finish in Division I of the Arkansas Derby (G1) May 2 at Oaklawn. The horse was disqualified, along with Gamine from her win in another race. Both were found in post-race tests to have trace amounts of lidocaine in the trillionths of a gram. A commonly used anesthetic, lidocaine is a banned substance on raceday at Oaklawn beyond a tiny unspecified threshold. Arkansas rules hold the trainer responsible regardless how the infraction occurred. The Hall of Fame trainer was suspended for 15 days.
“This is the craziest year ever,” said a reflective Baffert. “It’s tough on me. It’s tough on my wife, Jill. In May, I had four horses ready to roll. Then things happened. Today when Jimmy broke his arm, I thought, ‘It just doesn’t end, it just keeps going.’ ”
Beginning to choke up, Baffert concluded saying, “It’s been a roller coaster year, but thankfully it’s the love of the horses that keeps me going. They’re the best therapy a human can have. I love being around them.”