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