Doomsayers: Chaos and tumult will reign outside Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.
Horse racing: Hold my mint julep.
I needed a third eye on Saturday, trying to monitor a big day of racing while at Saratoga Race Course, a big day of racing at Churchill Downs, and whatever might be developing outside the fenceline built to keep protestors at bay at the Kentucky Derby.
The protestors, generally supporting the Black Lives Matter movement but specifically demanding justice in the name of Louisville’s own Breonna Taylor, marched to the track and attempted to make their voices heard to those inside, whose numbers were limited by one of the other rails on which 2020 clunks fitfully and painfully along.
The COVID-19 pandemic and BLM combined to turn Churchill inside out, with no fans allowed on the grounds (when typically there would be 150,000) and hundreds of activists merging on the sidewalks outside. Add a line of heavily armed white supremacists also marching toward the track, and you understand why people have been on tenterhooks for weeks, bracing for conflict.
Thankfully, there was no violence, based on reports from the Louisville Courier-Journal and social media.
The same can’t be said for inside the Churchill gates.
Thousand Words wiped out his assistant trainer before the race, sending Jimmy Barnes to an ambulance, and Authentic wiped out his boss Bob Baffert after the Derby, having blown up the dreams of Sackatoga Stable in the process by beating their beloved Tiz the Law, a supposed sure thing to win at odds of 3-5.
It was a remarkable sixth Derby victory for Baffert, whose career lacks, shall we say, the wholesomeness of the Sackatoga crew, with their yellow schoolbus tradition, relatively modest means and loyalty to veteran hay-oats-and-water trainer Barclay Tagg.
It’s not hard to cast this one as the Evil Empire vanquishing the plucky upstarts from upstate New York (10 or so of the 35 Tiz the Law partners live in the Capital Region, including manager Jack Knowlton).
So it was with much schadenfreude that Tiz the Law supporters on social media rushed to the karma’s-a-bitch-ain’t-it theme when Authentic ripped a NASCAR doughnut during the trophy presentation, hip-checking Baffert to the ground.
If you’ve been following the Baffert sideshow this year, you know that one of his battalion of Derby prospects, Charlatan, had his Arkansas Derby victory vacated when a second drug test for a lidocaine overage came back positive. Baffert is appealing the 15-day suspension.
He still wound up with two good shots at the Derby, until Thousand Words flipped backwards in the paddock while being saddled about 24 minutes before post time, falling onto his side and injuring Barnes. Thousand Words suffered no injuries, but was an automatic scratch, leaving the Derby field at 15 horses.
Tiz the Law had no excuses.
Jockey Manny Franco got him positioned into his preferred stalking trip while gradually angling in from his outside post to save some ground heading into the first turn.
Coming off the second turn, Tiz the Law made his move to engage Authentic — famous last words from me were “This is over” — but Tiz the Law just couldn’t get by Authentic and had to settle for second place for the first time this strange year.
“He ran his guts out,” Knowlton told the Derby media team immediately after the race. “He had him right where we needed to be. He’s been winning races, and that trip and that horse today, he was just better. It happens.
“I’m the only person that returned from the Funny Cide days. It’s a new group of people with their first experience at the Kentucky Derby, and even though it didn’t turn out the way we hoped it would, certainly no shame in the race that he ran. He’ll be back. Hopefully he’ll come out of the race well, and we’ll look to go on to Baltimore [for the Preakness].”
“We didn’t win it. Baffert’s hard to beat,” Tagg said, also on the track right after the race.
“I thought he would [get there], because he usually moves away from them. What can you do? It’s a horse race. He’s run well every time. He ran a good race today. He got beat.”
Leave it to Tagg to distill the Derby down to its purest drop of reality, at a time when the world is a dangerous cocktail of sickness and civil unrest.
Tiz the Law had been one of the few constant sources of flawless reliability in this upside-down world. But, as Tagg said, it’s a horse race.
The fun-loving Knowlton was due for a cold one after this Derby no matter the outcome. It’ll just be a difficult one to swallow.
“He had this horse sharp. I didn’t think this horse was going to be the winner,” Knowlton said. “And I don’t know that Bob did. I talked to him the other day, and he certainly was full of praise for our horse. He’s got the magic touch and had this horse ready at the right time and he beat us today. Hopefully, he gets more shots at him and we turn the tables on him.
“Let’s go to Baltimore and get the Preakness.”
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