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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


When the 2020 season began to heat up in South Florida this winter, Covid-19 was prepping for wrecking havoc, Angel Cordero was booking mounts for the most talented Puerto Rican protégé he ever mentored, Manny Franco’s career was just taking off and Ben Jones was the winningest trainer in Kentucky Derby history.

What a difference the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” can make.

If horse racing doesn’t teach us anything about life, then we’re not paying enough attention to the lessons this game delivers on a regular schedule.

Destiny matters and, if that’s not true, at minimum we can all acknowledge that things do happen for a reason. Damned if I know what they are, but of this I’m certain:

The best horse on the day won Saturday at Churchill Downs and the jockey Cordero mentored rode the smartest race of his brilliant, 200 Grade 1-winning Hall of Fame career. Cordero’s newest protege finished second, but did nothing wrong.

There hasn’t been a rider make the entire difference between victory and defeat in the Kentucky Derby since Calvin Borel shot up the fence with Mine That Bird for the whole mile-and-a-quarter 12 years ago.

High above it all from a makeshift studio, Jerry Bailey–who, when cornered to assess his career upon his retirement 15 years ago I called the best rider I had ever seen–explained to a national audience what Johnny Velazquez needed to do to beat the unbeatable Tiz the Law.

Bailey was spot on, and Velazquez demonstrated perfection on horseback.

“He told me he had a plan,” said the man who now has saddled as many Derby winners as Ben Jones, six: “That man over there,” Bob Baffert said, pointing at Velazquez, “helped me do this.”

For emphasis, Baffert said it twice. And sure enough, Velazquez went out won it for Authentic’s Hall of Fame trainer, legendary breeder Wayne Hughes, who was pining for this victory, and the colt’s 4,500 other owners.

Perhaps the most bizarre scene in Kentucky Derby history took about 30 minutes from start to finish. It started as the best 2020 three-year-olds left standing began circling the walking ring at Churchill Downs.   

Thousand Words, as if he were spooked by the ghost of Derby crowds past, reared, flipped over, and sent the most valuable traveling lad in American racing, Jimmy Barnes, heavily to the ground, breaking his hand. The colt was scratched on the spot.

Later in the broadcast and just minutes before post time, Bailey offered:

“This is why I don’t think Johnny Velazquez is smart and is not going to blast off leaving the gate. He’ll let Authentic run but not really pull the trigger until he sees what Ny Traffic is going to do.

“He always wants the option, if he has it, to be very close and not on the lead and avoid a head-and-head duel. He might want to stay outside and force Manny Franco to make a decision. It’s a mind game…”

A mind game that Velazquez won. He got Authentic to break strongly and straight away from the barrier.

In fact, Tiz the Law came out one stride and briefly stepped slightly into Authentic’s path. To their inside, Honor A.P. got wiped out by Ny Traffic. Honor A.P. went on to save no ground, but ultimately lacked the pop of his Santa Anita Derby score.

The first brilliant move Johnny made was to take hold in the first furlong, forcing the horses to his inside including Ny Traffic and Tiz the Law to decide and both entered the first turn very well.

But by then JR had given Authentic some rein and allowed him to take a comfortable lead with a minimum loss of ground. He rated his colt perfectly, wisely staying off the fence at to avoid attacking pressure, knowing it likely would force Franco to be a tad wider than he probably would have liked.

Meanwhile, Franco rode as if he were on the best horse, which he was, staying in the clear.

At the far turn, Franco wisely pressured Ny Traffic, hoping the New York-bred gray would pressure the leader, but the colt wasn’t up to the task. Approaching headstretch, Franco had to make his move.

But instead of blowing by, as he had in the Florida Derby, Belmont and Travers, Tiz the Law stayed one-paced just as it seemed he would go by. His lamentable habit of snaking around in the stretch cost him in the biggest race of his life.

In the final analysis, Tiz the Law was flat, not sharp. He regressed. At minimum he did not bring his ‘A’ game. And that’s why the run in races.

Take nothing away from the winner. With both horses all out in that desperate final furlong, Authentic was the one who found another gear. Tiz the Law did not, without visible excuse, though useful to note his only career losses came at Churchill.

Tuesday: More on Derby-146, the Kentucky Oaks, other races of note from the weekend and the opening of Kentucky Downs

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32 Responses

  1. At the first quarter I thought Authentic was in serious trouble. At 4F I was thinking what a ride….seemed Authentic was off the rail just enough yet able to throttle things down. Thinking I read 46.8? One smart rider is John V. Saddened only in learning after the race about his Mom’s currently going through chemo. Prayer goes out to Mother Mary to help her through it all. (The Son got all the credit at the Wedding Feast at Cana, but then we learned of “Not yet my time Mom.” At the end of the day, they had plenty of wine. Top shelf wine as well. The Son got all the credit, but by my take Mary was the One who set things in motion.) If a favor is ever needed, always ask the Blessed Mother to intercede on your behalf. Never forget, She was at Jewish Mother. Sorry in advance if any offense taken. All light hearted stuff, but my prayers are serious. God Bless the extended Johnny V. Family in their hours of hardship.

    1. Thank you for your usual thoughtful and measured response.

      And did I mention spiritual greetings? I am happy and proud that you are part of the extended HRI family.

      God bless… Enjoy the holiday and stay safe!

  2. NY Traffic was as bad as the real thing, but it didn’t cost HAP. What cost HAP was his inability to handle the track early on, so that Mike couldn’t get him position. My friend pointed out that even while he made his run, he was running with his head much higher than usual – and he wasn’t striding out as usual. He made a very good, sustained run, but he left himself with too much to do.

    I think HAP has some quirks to work out. Therefore, I hope they skip the BC with him. I also hope they run him somewhere, maybe even try turf as an experiment.

    Max ran well..very proud of him.

  3. Hey Bets,

    I need to go back and go through the field, including Max, he ran into a traffic jam early, will check it.

    Max was hurt by a rough start when NYT broke out into him. I really don’t think he handled the track in the late going either; otherwise should have–should have–been third. My Shirreffs might have played his hand a little too close to the vest.

    It’s not his style but this guy looks like he might need to hear his feet rattle a bit. He’s a big horse, so while it’s not the trainer’s style, maybe what he needs is a little long and tough love in the mornings.

  4. Hey John

    I look forward to your thoughts!

    Based on this tweet, HAP might have been closer than that.

    **Who ran fastest in the Derby accounting for ground loss? Honor A. P. ran 49 more feet than Authentic. He traveled a total of 6712 feet in 121.16 seconds for an avg of 55.40 ft/sec. His adjusted time for 1 1/4 (6600 ft) is 1:59.14. Fastest in the race. Ground loss from Trakus. … 32290?s=21

    John said a day or so before the race that his training before the Shared Belief was so light because he was focused in correcting some behavioral issues. HAP was full of beans and becoming hard to handle…John does agree with you, because he’s also said that “wet saddle blankets were the best thing for a high strung horse” ! I watch HAP’s works all the time, he loves to run…therefore, I’d like to see some faster works from him…longer is ok,too. I guess I’m agreeing with you!

  5. I also thought Johnny V’s ride was brilliant;lant. Franco rode according to instructions and did nothing wrong. I think his only chance would have been to be more aggressive at the beginning when Tiz had some run,but that was not the game plan and it is not easy to go to plan B when plan A has been working. Perhaps a Baily,Cordero or Dominguez would make a move like that,but not an untested Derby jockey. This is a tough game and sometimes experience matters.

    1. Yes, experience counts. But had Manny moved sooner, do you believe it would have changed the result? IMO, it would not.

      1. When a supposedly unbeatable horse loses,you look for reasons to reverse the loss. I certainly could not say with any conviction different tactics would reverse the result. Just throwing out at an alternate strategy.

      2. Saez, and Lexcano would have done a better showing than this Not ready x Prime Time jockey whose winning % stayed at below TEN Percent. Add Alvarado to that group who is much better than this Cordero pupil. Can only do so much as many former jockeys have failed in the big show before him.Guys like Asmussen,Bridgemohan,Gryder etc. could not win the big ones even on an Iron Horse.Should be replaced off Tiz the Law.You shall see.The owners lost Millions because of him to,,JV going to the lead [??!! ] . He messed up,admit it ,monday- morning second stringers ! Stop making excuses for him. Lexcano,the best ROI jockey .

  6. John,

    Shedaresthedevil, last race July 8, defeats Swiss Skydiver, last race August 15. Authentic, last race July 18, holds off Tiz the Law, last race August 8. The logical next step, even more trainers staying way from so-called prep races unless a five week (or longer gap) until the “big” race? I know this has been trending for a while, from here out it’s likely to be the norm.

    Turning for home, I think most would agree that Swiss and Tiz looked liked winners. While both ran okay, neither seemed to have the sharpness of prior races. Authentic, who looked like a dead horse running in the final 100 yards of the Haskell, kept on going Saturday. Baffert effect? While I enjoy the guy as a tv interview, as opposed to vanilla tv of other top tier trainers, I also have in back of my mind the rapid rise (and disappearance)of Justify and the disqualifications of Charleton and Gamine this winter. And, oh yeah, one more: as otherworldly as Arrogate was over those four races in 2017/17, he always left me with the thought of “if it looks too good to be true, maybe it isn’t true.


    1. Arrogate and “the Baffert effect.” Hmm…

      As for spacing, 5-6 weeks has been the trend for many years now. Today’s Thoroughbreds it seems cannot sustain their sharpness without sufficient rest in-between. That I would call “the Lasix effect.”

  7. I couldn’t begin to imagine what it’s like to watch the Kentucky Derby and having my big takeaway from the race being some type of anger at what a jockey wore over his nose and mouth.

  8. Is there a horse currently in training that has more heart than Serengeti Empress? She is an absolute pleasure to watch. I’m saddened that there will only be one more opportunity, but very thankful for what we have been given. It’s been one of the rare things that has brought enjoyment in 2020.

  9. You are absolutely right and, no, I have not seen a pure speed horse with that kind of heart in some time. In terms of brilliant sprinting fillies, do I have to go back to Affectionately?

    1. Not fillies but your favorite, Slew, in losing effort to Exceller in Jockey Club Gold Cup. Had lead, was passed late and fought back to lose by nose in photo. Went to to re-watch Serengeti Empress/Belle’s the One Turf City race. She really is a cool horse.

      1. C, Yes she is, the Empress–and Slew was the greatest effort made in defeat I have ever seen in over a half-decade of attending the races.

        1. John, Let’s not confuse our decades and centuries. Willie Shoemaker on Exceller but Slew fought back and just missed. I think I was at Belmont for that race.

    2. Yeah could be. I can think of fillies/mares that fought that viciously once or twice, but not really one that so constantly looks to go to war.

      Carson Hollow in the Test the year You took it was absolutely resolute after setting blistering fractions.

      Serengeti is going to be one hell of an in demand broodmare prospect despite her own relatively cheap price.

      1. Another bargain winner was Hopeful Stakes winner, Jackie’s Warrior. Won with ease and has reeled off three straight as a two year old colt. Try and watch replay. Asmussen trained, look for him in BC in November at Keeneland.

  10. Just checked out Jackie’s Warrior sale price. Sold last September at Keeneland Sale of 95k. By today’s standards that is a good deal. This colt looks like he has BIG future. Has never lost in three starts. Jogged yesterday at Saratoga. Go Jackie!

    1. Please, C, let’s not mix our Thoroughbred and Harness metaphors…

      Said on ESPN radio yesterday with Rodger Weyland that this year’s Hopeful might have been the best I’ve seen in the modern era.

      Of course, you don’t know about two turns until you try but this horse broke like a bullet and came back to Joel rather easily; certainly doesn’t appear to be runoff-type speed.

  11. John: With regard to great sprinting fillies, How about Safely Kept and My Juliet. Tom Amoss’ filly is one tough customer, but those two beat males on many occasions. Anyway, everyone has an opinion, whether positive or negative about Mr. Baffert. However, if there was ever a better example of the Agony and Ecstasy of sports, especially within a 20 minute time frame, I cannot think of one. La Forza del Destino was certainly in play at this year’s Derby. Best wishes to Jimmy Barnes. He quite literally gave his arm to get this victory. Also, lets give many thanks that Thousand Words did not suffer any injuries in the fall. With all of the controversy surrounding this year’s Derby, any serious injury to one of the horses would have caused incalculable damage to this industry.

  12. Yeah he was a monster yesterday. That was jaw dropping; the Chad Brown colt looked like he ran a good race, and he wasn’t even on the screen when Jackie’s Warrior hit the wire.

    1. Could be a good thing at BC in November. Asmussen brought you Curlin and this could be another one of those, ha, ha. Jackie won Hopeful Stakes so easily and giving all others no “hope.” Again, they got him last Sept for under 100k and now it’s “off to the races” with him. I would love to be the owner, ha, ha.

      1. Just read online that Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms increased the stud fee on Jackie’s Warrior’s sire, Maclean’s Music. This is what happens when one of your progeny wins a Grade 1 but MM also has sired other winning offspring and is really starting to impress as a sire. You can book MM for 25k now but if you want Curlin you’ve got to come up with 150k for a live foal. Curlin was a monster, ‘tho.

      2. Indeed, in this era, $95K is pocket change to these individuals who insist on playing at a high level…

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