HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, May 2, 2021 – On the first Saturday in May, with temperatures in the low 70s, beneath the twin spires and under cloudless skies, 51,838 assorted fans, gamblers, and beautiful people assembled for a traditional celebration of America that was two years in the making.
The Kentucky Derby is sports theater at its best. Like Forrest’s mama always told him, you never know what you’re going to get. And just like a box of assorted chocolates, there are things you like, don’t like, and some you never hope to see again.
Unlike the Godfather, I don’t insist on hearing bad news immediately so, as racetrackers say, let’s get off on the good foot. Just like Johnny Velazquez, who NBC analyst Jerry Bailey termed “the best position rider I’ve ever seen.” Bailey would know.
Johnny V, whose mounts have earned more purse money than any rider in the sport’s history had a plan, one he executed flawlessly with, however unintended, the help of 18 rivals who were clutching and grabbing in a desperate attempt to secure the perfect trip.
The problem is that the best trip of all is early speed virtually unchallenged. There was some mild pressure outside from longshot Soup and Sandwich, as Florent Geroux was content to sit a loose pocket with a loaded Mandaloun. Hot Rod Charlie merely maintained close order after some early traffic issues.
Challenges eventually came on the far turn but the pace was moderate enough to allow Velazquez to tease his rivals, letting out notches of rein as more serious challenges to began to mount. At that point, 18 rivals dwindled down to three of four as headstretch approached.
Racing luck always matters, and fortune smiled on Medina Spirit while potential threats were compromised, seriously or otherwise. Even if he were more experienced, second favorite Rock Your World was completely eliminated at the start when he broke tardily and was badly buffeted about.
In five jumps, Rock Your World’s Derby was over, but wait there’s more.
Midnight Bourbon and Dynamic One came together to the detriment of both. Keepmeinmind broke in a tangle and was the only horse to make ground through the stretch. Sainthood and Brooklyn Strong exchanged punches, knocking each other out.
The horse who eliminated Rock Your World was favorite Essential Quality. This time Luis Saez was blameless. But in riding “the best horse,” Saez gave up too much ground on both turns then pushed the button a tad too soon, mitigating the kind of surge that enabled the champion to win the Blue Grass.
The good news/bad news was trainer Bob Baffert’s record-setting seventh Kentucky Derby victory. It’s not a good look when the face of the sport is placed in an unflattering spotlight on national television. But don’t blame the messenger for reporting the facts.
The positive findings, disqualifications and later Arkansas Racing Commission’s reversal on appeal was another victory for “process,” allowing a rules-breaker off the hook with arguments of administrative ineptness. Violation of the trainer responsibility rule could not be proven beyond doubt.
The ugly came from the Internet, as it often does, and Racing Twitter had its way with Mr. Baffert and Thoroughbred racing itself. It had questions and made observations, proving that noise that can never be completely shut out. And every tweet tells a story.
Tweet from Michael: “BB has a drug to give more oxygen in there [sic] blood. That would explain how horses never get tired and rebreak in the stretch. This happened in the Triple Crown races, and not an isolated situation.”
Linda’s tweet asked: “What kind of concoctions could be given that can’t be detected through testing?”
June Wright tweeted: “Worst thing about a cheater winning the Derby? It makes you feel like a fool for even watching. What chumps they must think we are.”
My response to Linda: “Whatever [the concoction], it is in R & D as we speak. Eventually, testing catches up … eventually.”
And this, to no one in particular: “When and if the Feds get to do their thing next year, change has a chance to come. Many people who love the idea of this game will hold their nose, open their ADW account, and bet. Those who can’t live with that reality will walk away, as many have…”
Like Swift tweeted: “I think I’m officially done with horse racing!”
Next stop, Baltimore.
Next Time: A closer look at Saturday’s X’s and O’s and the final two legs of the Triple Crown