The following was written by Chelsea Hackbarth and appeared in The Paulick Report September 6. Photos below all courtesy of Coady Photography.
There simply aren’t enough words, in any language, to describe the depth of emotions felt around Churchill Downs on this historic Kentucky Derby day on the first Saturday in September.
Outside the gates, protesters chanted the name of Breonna Taylor, the woman killed by city police in Louisville, Ky., back in March, as they marched all the way around the track. The NFAC (Not F*cking Around Coalition), a self-described black militia, knelt on the lawn just outside Churchill’s front gates, separated from law enforcement by a single chain-link fence.
Overhead, news helicopters drowned out the bugler’s stirring rendition of My Old Kentucky Home while a plane displayed a banner reading “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.”
In the grandstand, the horses’ hoofbeats echoed through empty seats; the worldwide coronavirus pandemic kept fans away from the 2020 Run for the Roses.
Meanwhile, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert could do nothing but watch when one of his two Derby contenders, Thousand Words, reared up and flipped over in the Kentucky Derby paddock. Not only was Baffert devastated for the colt’s connections, but the trainer’s long-time assistant Jimmy Barnes suffered a broken wrist in the incident and was taken to an ambulance as the horses approached the starting gate.
Minutes later, Baffert screamed home his other Derby entrant, 8-1 chance Authentic, as the 3-year-old son of Into Mischief led the field from gate-to-wire to defeat 3-5 favorite Tiz the Law by 1 1/4 lengths. The victory ties Baffert for the all-time Kentucky Derby record of six victories, set by trainer Ben Jones.
“I told John (Velazquez, jockey) in the paddock, I said, ‘Do it for Jimmy,’” an emotional Baffert relayed from the winner’s circle. “All I can say is this horse ran out of his mind. Johnny V. – perfect ride. I owe it all to my crew. Jimmy, poor guy is in an ambulance right now, he can’t enjoy it. This is so emotional the ups and downs in this game. Unbelievable.”
It was a microcosm of the year that was 2020 in the Baffert barn: a roller coaster ride that appears far from over.
Early in the Derby prep season, Baffert had his hands full with budding superstars Charlatan and Nadal, but the classic was delayed by COVID-19. Instead, Baffert sent the colts out to win split editions of the Arkansas Derby on the first Saturday in May. Both colts subsequently had to be removed from consideration for the Kentucky Derby due to injury.
Authentic had made a bit of a name for himself with wins in the Sham and San Felipe, but he finished second to fellow Kentucky Derby rival Honor A. P. in the Santa Anita Derby. The colt bounced back to win the Grade 1 Haskell by a nose over Derby rival Ny Traffic, but that effort over 1 1/8 miles left his capacity for the Derby’s 1 1/4-mile distance in doubt. Authentic’s Haskell jockey, “Big Money” Mike Smith, chose to ride Honor A. P. in Louisville, so Baffert put in a call to another Hall of Famer, John Velazquez.
Velazquez already had two Kentucky Derby winners to his name: 2011 with Animal Kingdom (Graham Motion), and 2017 with Always Dreaming (Todd Pletcher). The Derby was also the 200th Grade 1 victory of Velazquez’ career.
The final field of 15 that lined up in the Kentucky Derby starting gate was the smallest since 1998, and Authentic drew the far outside post.
“The key to this race was the break,” Baffert said. “We’ve been planning this out the last couple of nights at Jeff Ruby’s. We knew we had to get away from there. We talked about where certain people would be. Johnny is a world-class jockey and knows where everyone should be. I told him what I thought and he told me what he thought. I said, ‘I like your plan.’ I told him what the horse likes and what he can do. I’ve been fortunate to have some great jockeys, this race was won by Johnny, just the way he handled the horse and how he finished. He earned this. He beat a really good horse. Tiz the Law is a top-notch horse. I feel bad for the connections. I’ve been there. But, this never gets old. We just feel so fortunate and blessed.”
Velazquez had clear racing room at the break and used the long run to the first turn to send his mount straight to the front, passing Storm the Court to gain a one-length advantage. While the first quarter was quick, 22.92 seconds, Velazquez was able to slow the pace down enough to cross the half-mile marker in :46.41, and he traveled the first six furlongs in 1:10.23.
Though 3-5 favorite Tiz the Law, the Belmont and Travers winner, appeared to be getting a perfect stalking trip in third on the outside of Storm the Court, Authentic’s mid-race breather was just enough. When Tiz the Law drew up alongside Authentic at the head of the lane, Velazquez asked the colt for everything he had.
Authentic responded, repelling Tiz the Law’s bid and driving away to win the 146th Kentucky Derby by 1 1/4 lengths, stopping the clock in 2:00.61 over the fast main track.
In the post-race press conference, Velazquez revealed that he’d worn a special tribute to the protesters during the running of the Kentucky Derby. He held up a black band, emblazoned with the words, “Equality For All.”
“Equality for everybody would make the world much better,” Velazquez said.
Authentic is the first Kentucky Derby winner for co-owner B. Wayne Hughes of Spendthrift Farm. He shared the win with Starlight Racing, Madaket Stable, and the group MyRacehorse, which invited fans to purchase a micro-share of the colt prior to the Derby. According to MyRacehorse social media accounts, 4,500 people got to experience the feeling of owning the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Bred in Kentucky by Peter E. Blum Thoroughbreds, Authentic is out of the winning Mr. Greeley mare Flawless. He commanded a final bid of $350,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling sale, and his record now stands at five wins and one second from six starts, with earnings over $2.8 million.
Though his bid for an unconventional Triple Crown was ended on Saturday, Sackatoga’s managing partner Jack Knowlton wasn’t too disappointed in the effort from beaten favorite Tiz the Law.
“At the top of the stretch, the way he’s been running all year, basically Manny (Franco) hasn’t had to ask him,” Knowlton said. “Manny was asking him and he was trying. Authentic ran a great race. We’re going to see probably a big speed figure in there, and he deserved to win. He got the inside trip, and obviously our plan was to be outside. It’s worked all year. When you look probably at the number of the feet each of the horses ran, when it’s all said and done we probably ran quite a bit farther, farther than we got beat. But that was our plan, that’s the way this horse likes to run. Credit Authentic, I mean he came from the far outside and managed to get to the lead and just ran a great race. No shame on our part.”
Mr. Big News made a big move from the back of the pack and appeared loaded turning for the wire, but flattened out a bit late and finished third, 3 1/4 lengths behind Tiz the Law.
“He ran huge,” said Mr. Big News’ trainer, Bret Calhoun. “Quite a thrill. Going to the three-eighths pole, I thought we had a chance to win the whole thing. They didn’t quite come back to us. Just an incredible race on his part.”
Honor A. P., who’d been bumped out of the gate by Ny Traffic and Paco Lopez and shuffled back to second-last at the start, ran on well to finish fourth.
“He spun out from the word go,” said Honor A. P.’s jockey Mike Smith. “I was proud that he still put in an effort and ran OK. It wasn’t his best race by no means. I never dreamed he would struggle with the track. When we saw him train over the track this week, he was bouncing over it, but it was sloppy. He seemed to like that. This is a deeper, cuppier track – he has a big ‘ol flat foot. He just couldn’t get a hold of it.”
The remaining order of finish was as follows: Max Player, Storm the Court, Enforceable, Ny Traffic, Necker Island, Major Fed, Sole Volante, Winning Impression, Money Moves, Attachment Rate and South Bend.
After the race, the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ on‑call vet Dr. Kathleen Anderson issued the following update on Thousand Words: “The good news is the horse is absolutely fine. He did misbehave in the paddock and was scratched after he fell over sort of onto his side. He’s returned to the stable area. Had a thorough examination by Dr. Kevin Dunlavy, his regular practitioner, and has been cleared for service with not a scratch upon him. So we’re very pleased with that outcome.”
Baffert’s other five Kentucky Derby winners are: Justify (2018, Triple Crown winner), American Pharaoh, (2015, Triple Crown winner), War Emblem (2002), Real Quiet (1998), and Silver Charm (1997).
Ben “Plain Ben” Jones’ six Kentucky Derby winners are: Hill Gail (1952), Ponder (1949), Citation (1948, Triple Crown winner), Pensive (1944), Whirlaway (1941, Triple Crown winner), and Lawrin (1938).