NOT LOUISVILLE ‑‑ There is nothing ordinary about the surreal and contorted thoroughbred Triple Crown of 2020, a four-month slog across the breadth of a nation (mostly, kind of, depends on where you live) held captive by a virus that has killed nearly 190,000 Americans, pushed to the edge by racial and cultural tensions decades (centuries?) in the making, and riven by political differences hurtling toward a collision in early November and probably well beyond. There is nothing ordinary about a Kentucky Derby in September or a Preakness in October or about both of them coming after the Belmont Stakes at the unnatural distance of 1 1/8 miles. There is nothing ordinary about acres of empty seats in racetracks from New York to Kentucky (and soon enough, Maryland), or trainers in surgical masks or jockeys living in racetrack trailers for days on end, quarantining to ride safely. It is all from a dystopian novel in a place we hadn’t imagined living. Different in the extreme.
There is nothing ordinary about one aging sportswriter awakening on the morning of the Kentucky Derby in his own bed for the first time in 19 years, his own book on the nightstand, his own sneakers on the floor nearby. He is supposed to be in a modest hotel in Louisville, charging his employer a ridiculous three-night minimum more expensive than the cost of his first car. He is supposed to have spent the day at Churchill Downs, delightfully dodging overserved patrons (Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t wrong), and then frantically typing a game story alongside colleagues in the kinetic atmosphere of a buzzing press room and not in the eerie silence of an NBC office in Connecticut after a brief television appearance. Different, in a narrower extreme.
And then, early on an autumn Saturday evening, closer to Christmas than to the first Saturday in May, a horse trained by Bob Baffert won the Kentucky Derby. And in horse racing, and in all of sports, there is nothing more exceptionally ordinary on this earth than Bob Baffert winning the Kentucky Derby (with the possible exception of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady winning Super Bowls). On this day, it was a three-year-old colt named Authentic who gave Baffert his sixth Derby win, tying Ben Jones, who won six Derbies from 1938 to 1952. So as the sun fell behind the twin spires and empty grandstand (not there to witness, but I am confident this happened), there was Baffert in the winners’ circle, white hair, blue blazer and yellow tie, on rewind (excepting the reality that with the Belmont having been won by Tiz the Law in late June, there will be no Triple Crown). It was a rare moment of familiarity in confusing times. Except so much that led to it, and followed, was not.
The 146th Derby unfolded 16 months after the 145th, which itself was one of the strangest in history, and included the first on-track disqualification in the long history of the race and was not officially decided until lawsuits were dismissed and appeals dropped just a week before yesterday’s Derby. It unfolded in a city on edge since the spring, with nightly protests connected to the March 13 shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot by Louisville police, and it unfolded with peaceful protests taking place during the running of the Derby and against the backdrop of a significant law enforcement presence. It unfolded with the Churchill grounds devoid of spectators (although there were plenty of VIPs visible in television images), after racetrack officials had scrapped plans to seat “no more than 23,000 spectators,” up until a week before the Derby. As accustomed as we have become to empty venues, Churchill took up its own place in this canon.
It unfolded with Tiz the Law made a 7-10 favorite, the shortest priced-favorite since Spectacular Bid went off at 3-5 in 1979, unsurprising since Tiz the Law had a been a beacon of reliability throughout the spring and into the summer, even as virus numbers grew and nationwide unrest expanded. He had won the Florida Derby at the start of the pandemic, and he had won the Belmont Stakes in front of the manifestly empty Belmont Park grandstand on June 20. Seven weeks later he won Saratoga’s Travers at the Classic Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles, cantering across the finish line, leaving fuel in his tank for Kentucky.
Tiz had been a sweet story, too. He is owned by Sackatoga Stables, the same common-man ownership behind 2003 Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, and trained by 82-year-old Barclay Tagg, who would have been the oldest Derby-winning trainer in history. (Tagg complicated this feelgood story during Derby week, when he was asked about the protests in Louisville and said, in part, “I don’t know what these guys are gonna do, these rioters. Who knows? All I know is you’re not allowed to shoot them, and they’re allowed to shoot you, that’s what it looks like to me” (I discussed these comments with NBC’s Mike Tirico during Saturday’s Derby telecast. They were unfortunate at best, in light of the tensions in Louisville, and incendiary at worst).
Baffert, meanwhile, had worked through a challenging year. In the early spring, he seemed to have accumulated his usual deep roster of potential Derby and Triple Crown challengers. Even after the pandemic reshuffled the calendar, Baffert won both divisions of the May 2 Arkansas Derby with Nadal and Charlatan. Bad news followed quickly. First came the story on May 26 that Charlatan had tested positive for a banned substance (later announced as lidocaine) in Arkansas; Baffert-trained filly Gamine also tested positive. It got worse: Two days later Nadal suffered a condylar fracture of his left front leg and was retired. Nine days later Charlatan was injured and taken off the Triple Crown trail, even in its expanded format.
The narrative expanded. Baffert first railed against the confidentiality breach that made the positive tests public before the split, or “B” sample was tested. When the split sample came back positive, Baffert explained that his longtime assistant, Jimmy Barnes (remember his name; he will reappear soon), who has had back surgery and still endures pain, had worn a lidocaine patch in Arkansas and inadvertently transferred the substance to the horses. It was a plausible explanation but also exotic, in the realm of distance runners claiming spiked toothpaste (which has been claimed). In a sport where many lie in wait for Baffert to fall, there was damage done to his reputation. (He was also hit with a 15-day suspension, which he has appealed).
After the Derby, Baffert said in the winners’ press conference, “This is crazy. I have had so many things. This is the craziest year ever.
“I’ve been ‑‑ I can’t believe ‑‑ it’s tough. It’s tough on me. It’s tough on my wife, Jill. The ups and downs we had. In May, we had four ‑‑ I had four. I had all these horses. We’d go to Oaklawn, Charlatan. We’ve got Nadal. They looked like unbeatable. We had this guy [Authentic], we didn’t know how good he was. We knew he was a good horse. I had four horses ready to roll. And just things happen.”
Indeed, even with the injuries, there were still three-year-olds in the barn. Thousand Words finished second in the Los Alamitos Derby on July 4 and then on Aug. 1 won the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar. Authentic, who had won two Derby preps in the spring, finished second to the very respected Honor A.P. on June 6 in the two months-delayed Santa Anita Derby and on July 18, won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth at 3-5 odds. After everything, Baffert would have two starters in the Derby.
Except he did not. Twenty minutes before the Derby, Thousand Words reared up in the paddock and fell disturbingly hard on his shoulder. Barnes, who was walking Thousand Words was yanked to the ground. Thousand Words was scratched from the race, although veterinarian Kathy Anderson said, later, “The horse is perfectly fine.” Barnes, however, according to Baffert, suffered a broken arm and was taken from the track by ambulance.
Baffert texted me late Saturday night with an update on Barnes: “Broke wrist in eight places but doing fine. Flying home tomorrow and [will] do surgery in CA. That’s the second Purple Heart he has earned working for me. Broke pelvis a few years ago when pony fell with him. Trooper. Good man.”
Nevertheless, two starters had become one. It was enough.
Authentic broke sluggishly from the outside post in the now 15-horse field, while Tiz the Law, just inside, got away cleanly. But jockey John Velazquez, who rides primarily on the East Coast but picked up the mount on Authentic when Mike Smith chose to ride Honor A.P. in the Derby (Honor A.P. was the marginal second choice in the Derby, at 7.60-1, while Authentic was 8.40-1), hustled Authentic into the lead. He never gave it up. Velazquez masterfully harnessed Authentic’s speed and endurance for a mile and then turned him loose just as Tiz the Law and Manny Franco came to his side, seemingly poised to attack after an easy, stalking trip.
“I let him get loose and get comfortable. I waited until the horses got to him to get after him, and he responded right away,’’ said Velazquez. “Bob kept telling me to make sure I saved that last eighth of a mile. ‘I want that eighth of a mile,’ he said. ‘I want you to hit left-handed,’ and he responded. It worked out the way we had planned it. I waited until he got right next to me. When I went left‑handed, this horse responded so good. It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, come and get me.’”
The final margin was 1 1/4 lengths.
Franco said, “I had the trip that I expected. He just couldn’t go by the other horse. The other horse fight so hard. He was ready for today, too.”
Tagg spoke similarly, in his usual succinct manner: “We didn’t win it. Baffert’s hard to beat. I thought [Tiz the Law] would [kick away], because he usually moves away from them. What can you do? It’s a horse race. He ran a good race today. He got beat.”
With Baffert in recent years, there have often been emotional subplots. In the spring of 2012, he underwent heart surgery in Dubai and six weeks later watched Bodemeister, named for his son, Bode, get caught at the wire in the Derby. In 2015, his historic Triple Crown with American Pharoah came after the deaths of his parents, a hole in the experience that he references often. Now he has won a Derby just minutes after his Sancho was rushed to the hospital.
“I just wish Jimmy was here with me. I gotta go see how he’s doing. He did break his arm. But I’m sure he’s – he’s worked so hard. He’s one of the greatest assistants of all time. And, like I said, if there was a hall of fame, he would be in it for assistant trainers.”
And this: “And I told Johnny and the horse, ‘You know, just do it for Jimmy,’ you know?”
In all of this, there were also unmistakable echoes of the turbulent year it’s been. Velazquez, who won the Derby for the third time, was among the New York jockeys who took a knee on the first day of the Belmont race meet in early June, to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter. In the post-race press conference, he showed an armband that read: Equality For All.
And Velazquez explained: “Equality For All. We believe that if we have equality for everybody, we won’t be in the mess we are in right now. Really. I think people have to look inside and be more peaceful. It goes the same way to when things are going wrong or something makes a mistake by the law and everything, you need to be held accountable, definitely.”
Baffert has lived through the pandemic in Southern California, which has lived through waves of optimism giving way to near defeat. “There’s a lot of frustration going on,” Baffert said. “I know we won the Derby and all that, but there’s a lot of people out there that are just suffering and all that. So that’s why ‑‑ it’s very humbling for me to win this race during this time because, you know, America, it’s just crazy out there. Every day we wake up, I’m like everybody else: Is this really happening? And I love to be up here pounding my chest because I won six, but I feel for everybody in the city because this is … supposed to be a happy time, the Derby, especially in Louisville, and it’s not. So it’s sort of a very strange, weird feeling.”
And this: “I cannot wait until 2020 is over.”
There was another moment. As Authentic was led to the Churchill Downs infield and walked in a tight circle, he became excited and scattered VIPs gathered nearby. Baffert was knocked to the grass, unhurt, yet symbolic. Even in victory, a fall. Even in celebration, a struggle. Twenty-twenty, indeed.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.