LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Bob Baffert endured the lowest of lows and highest of highs within minutes in the Kentucky Derby.
He was bummed before the horses left the paddock after Thousand Words reared up and fell on its side, getting disqualified and injuring Baffert’s assistant trainer. That emotion was quickly replaced by Authentic’s front-running victory that gave Baffert a record-tying sixth Derby win.
Then Baffert found himself down again, literally, getting knocked to the grass by a skittish Authentic in the winner’s circle.
“This is the craziest year ever,” he said.
Authentic kicked away from heavy favorite Tiz the Law in the stretch on Saturday, winning the 146th Derby by 1 1/4 lengths without the usual crowd of 150,000 on hand at Churchill Downs for the first time because of the coronavirus pandemic. The bay colt ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.61 under John Velazquez, who won his third Derby.
“I’ve had some great Derby rides, but what that guy did,” Baffert said, gesturing toward Velazquez, who stood socially distanced in the infield winner’s circle. “Johnny V. gave him an incredible ride.”
Baffert tied Ben Jones (1938-52) for the most wins by a trainer. His other victories came in 1997, 1998, 2002, 2015 with eventual Triple Crown winner Justify and 2018.
Sent off at 3-5 as the biggest Derby favorite in 31 years and part of a smaller field than usual, Tiz the Law stalked Authentic on the outside before challenging at the top of the stretch. But Authentic found another gear and pulled away from the Belmont winner, who came in 4 for 4 this year.
“Yes! Yes!” Baffert shouted in the paddock, where he watched on the video screen.
Thousand Words acted up in the paddock, reared up and fell on his side shortly before post time. Baffert said his assistant, Jim Barnes, broke his arm trying to get the saddle on the unruly colt. Thousand Words wasn’t injured, according to the on-call veterinarian.
In the winner’s circle, the long ribbons hanging off the garland of red roses kept hitting Authentic’s hind leg, agitating him, and in turn he knocked the white-haired trainer to the ground.
“He spun around and he was like a bowling ball. He just spun us all around,” Baffert said. “The turf course is pretty soft here, so it wasn’t too bad. I was probably more embarrassed than anything when I hit the ground.”
It’s been that kind of year for Baffert. The Hall of Fame trainer was loaded with promising 3-year-olds early on. Then Nadal got hurt and had to be retired and Charlatan went on the shelf with a minor injury. Authentic had issues, so Baffert gave him an extended break.
In between, Charlatan and another of Baffert’s horses had positive drug tests in Arkansas. Baffert is appealing his resulting 15-day suspension. The trainer mourned the death of Arrogate, North America’s all-time earnings leader, this summer.
“It’s been a roller-coaster year, but thankfully it’s the love of the horses that keeps me going,” said Baffert, his voice breaking. “They’re the best therapy a human can have. I love being around them.”
Authentic is co-owned by Spendthrift Farm, the racing operation of B. Wayne Hughes, the 86-year-old founder of Public Storage who also co-owns Thousand Words. Hughes won his first Derby. Also part of Authentic’s ownership is MyRaceHorse Stable, whose 4,600 participants include Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler and former Olympic skier Bode Miller. They paid about $206 each for a share.
Authentic paid $18.80, $6 and $5 at 8-1 odds. Tiz the Law returned $3.40 and $3.20. Mr. Big News was another two lengths back in third and paid $16.80 to show at 46-1.
Tiz the Law had already won the Belmont, the kickoff to the reconfigured Triple Crown that was run in June at a shorter distance. He followed that up with an easy win in the Travers, setting himself up as the dominant horse heading into the Derby.
But Velazquez hustled Authentic out of the far outside post and to the lead. Following Baffert’s instructions, Velazquez used a left-handed whip in the stretch to keep the skittish colt’s mind on business. Authentic wears ear plugs.
“He’s a little flighty,” Baffert said. “He’s a gentle horse, but he’s a little high-strung.”
Jockeys chirping at their horses and whips striking flesh in the stretch drive — sounds typically drowned out by raucous fans — echoed across the swath of empty seats under the Twin Spires. Bugler Steve Buttleman played “My Old Kentucky Home” in place of the absent University of Louisville marching band. The song was preceded by a moment of silence to recognize the inequities facing society. Protesters converged outside Churchill Downs demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman shot dead in her home in March when police burst in to serve a search warrant in the middle of the night.
The demonstrators were peaceful as they circled the historic track. They chanted “No justice, no Derby!” and carried signs imploring people to say Taylor’s name. Police watched in riot gear with clubs, some on horses and some with armored military vehicles.
“I’d love to be up here pounding my chest because I just won six,” Baffert said, “but I feel for everybody in the city.”
Velazquez was one of several jockeys in the race who wore black bands with the phrase “Equality for all.”
The field of 15 horses was the smallest since 1998.
Honor A. P. was fourth, followed by Max Player, Storm the Court, Enforceable, Ny Traffic, Necker Island, Major Fed, Sole Volante, Winning Impression, Money Moves, Attachment Rate and South Bend.
The 146th Kentucky Derby became a surreal distillation of the crises facing the country in 2020, in the hometown of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician shot dead in her home in March when police burst in to serve a search warrant in the middle of the night.
Inside the racetrack, the stands were mostly empty and wagering windows closed as fans were banned because of the coronavirus pandemic. Outside, thousands of protesters leaned into the gates, chanting Taylor’s name. Armored police vehicles in the parking lot replaced the normal throngs of Derby-goers in seersucker and showy hats.
As the horses rounded the track, the protesters shouted and stomped, trying to make enough noise so that no one inside could ignore them.
The protests were peaceful. The demonstrators marched 2 miles (3 kilometers) from a city park and circled the track. They chanted “No justice, no Derby!” and carried signs imploring people to say Taylor’s name. Inside the gate, police stood guard in riot gear with clubs, some on horses and some with armored military vehicles.
The investigation into Taylor’s March killing is ongoing and no charges have been filed.
“What are we celebrating?” one of the organizers, Brittany Wiley, told the crowd. “We don’t want mint juleps. We want justice. We’re not partying. We’re protesting. No justice? No Derby.”
Taylor Sanders, 24, looked up from the crowd of protesters at the plane overhead. As a Louisville native, the Derby is a special time for him and his family. Back in February, before the pandemic, he had shopped for tickets and planned to attend. But even if fans had been allowed inside, he said, it wouldn’t have felt right to go. His grandparents came of age during the Civil Rights movement. And still here he is, generations later. He said he doesn’t want his children to have to march, too.
“We are here as one,” he wants the protest to say to his hometown. “When they see our solidarity, they will have to understand that we are serious. We want justice for Breonna Taylor. And not just for her. For us all.”
When the race ended, the protesters quickly headed out. There was no violence, though the prospect of a large-scale demonstration on Derby Day, on top of the pandemic, had left the city on edge.
As the first race started Saturday morning, a group of self-described “patriots” marched through downtown as a counterprotest, many carrying assault rifles and campaign flags for President Donald Trump. They went to a square in the heart of downtown where demonstrators have kept vigil for more than 100 days. There were confrontations between the groups, but no violence.
The large protest at the racetrack march briefly crossed paths with a pro-gun Black group that calls themselves the NFAC. Some local protesters have disagreed with their tactics. The group marched in Louisville in July and an accidental shooting injured three members. On Saturday, about 100 members of the NFAC marched through but diverged from the large protest group and kept moving without incident.
On normal years, the Derby is a two-week long party.
Wanda Martin lives across from the backside of Churchill Downs. Usually her lawn is filled with people, food and music and dancing. Friends come from all over the county to visit. Martin grew up in the horse racing business. She worked for trainers, feeding and caring for the racehorses.
It is usually her favorite week of the year. She always sells T-shirts with sayings like “Talk Derby to me” and “Go Baby Go!”
The only thing she could come up with to put on her shirts this year was “2020 Worst Derby Ever.”
She hung them from a clothesline across the front of her lawn.
“It’s true,” she said. “Worst derby ever.”