Last year’s Kentucky Derby was plenty weird.
Remember that interminable wait as the stewards at Churchill Downs debated whether Maximum Security’s victory would stand? Or the collective gasp when they disqualified him and handed the Derby to 65-to-1 longshot Country House, who would never run another race? Was that really only 16 months ago?
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Derby already feels strange on an entirely different scale. The signature race on the American calendar will be run on Labor Day weekend instead of the first Saturday in May. The usual crowd of 150,000, decked out in spring dresses, seersucker suits and outlandish hats, will be absent. The Derby will go down as the second jewel in a mutated Triple Crown series scheduled to culminate with the Oct. 3 Preakness Stakes.
But the show will go on, as it did before an empty grandstand at Belmont Park when the series started on June 20. The Derby remains a monumental occasion for the trainers, owners and jockeys who target it with every moment and dollar they invest in promising 3-year-olds. With that in mind, here’s a look at five key storylines for the Sept. 5 race:
Just how big a favorite will Tiz the Law be?
The Derby is often a collision of mysteries and untested theories as the most promising 3-year-olds in a given year face unfamiliar questions of distance, crowding and competition. It was amazing that before the odd happenings of May 4, 2019, six consecutive favorites had won the race, from Orb in 2013 to Justify in 2018.
None of those champions, not even eventual Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify, entered the Derby with more steam than Tiz the Law.
The Barclay Tagg-trained colt won the Belmont Stakes with a classy performance that left few doubts about his versatility, poise or speed. But that’s really just the tip of his resume. Tiz the Law also won both of his Florida prep races without issue and if anything, did his Belmont performance one better with a dominating pull-away in the Aug. 8 Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
Bob Baffert, who trained the last two Triple Crown winners, knew his horse, Uncle Chuck, was “in big trouble” when Tiz the Law pulled eye-to-eye with him in the Travers. With jockey Manny Franco asking little of him, Tiz the Law had hardly broken a sweat, and his victory already seemed inevitable. The 1 ¼-mile distance, same as the Derby, posed no problem. This was the stuff of greatness.
Tiz the Law will face a larger, more talented field in Louisville, but the setup really does feel more like that of a typical Preakness. Everyone knows the horse to beat. But can he keep doing it? Can he continue to avoid the injuries and bad luck that have derailed so many Triple Crown quests? Can he top himself?
Which challengers pose the biggest threat?
It’s the obvious secondary plot when you have a strong favorite, and there are a handful of worthy contenders.
Art Collector is undefeated in four races this year, and two of those came at Churchill Downs. More recently, he looked very good in winning the July 11 Blue Grass Stakes and the Aug. 9 Ellis Park Derby. The son of 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini is a stalker with tactical speed, much like Tiz the Law, and that style usually works well in the Derby.
Honor A.P. is the leading West Coast challenger despite finishing second in the Aug. 1 Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar after he bumped into a rival early. He still earned an impressive Beyer Speed Figure of 102 and has trained well since. The Santa Anita Derby champion be ridden by one of the best big-race jockeys in the world in Mike Smith.
Baffert lost his top two Derby prospects, Nadal and Charlatan, to injury, but he rarely goes to his familiar Barn 33 at Churchill empty-handed. He’ll try for a sixth Derby victory with Haskell Stakes winner Authentic and the resurgent Thousand Words, who beat Honor A.P. in the Shared Belief Stakes after a rough spring. Skeptics wonder if Authentic will hold up to the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Derby. Thousand Words, meanwhile, has worked sharply since his upset of Honor A.P., suggesting his improvement might be real.
Is it possible that two of the best 3-year-olds running on Derby weekend won’t be in the Derby?
Tiz the Law is the consensus choice for best horse in this class. But if you’re looking for the best head-to-head matchup at Churchill Downs, consider the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks, which will pit 3-year-old fillies Swiss Skydiver and Gamine.
Swiss Skydiver has won four of her past five races, highlighted by an easy victory in the Aug. 15 Alabama Stakes that was reminiscent of Tiz the Law’s command performance on the same Saratoga track a week earlier.
Gamine, trained by Baffert, would be undefeated this year if not for a failed drug test that wiped out her May 2 win at Oaklawn Park. She’s annihilated her competition in two Grade-1 stakes since then.
Do these great fillies belong in the Derby? Both Baffert and Swiss Skydiver’s trainer, Kenny McPeek, teased the possibility before ultimately pointing to the Oaks. The most recent National Thoroughbred Racing Association Poll listed Gamine and Swiss Skydiver as the fifth- and sixth-best 3-year-olds in the class, respectively. The narrative around the race would certainly be juicier if they took their shots at Tiz the Law.
Chalk it up to what might have been, and if you care about high-level racing, don’t miss the Oaks.
Is there a tantalizing horse down the board?
The date change robs us of a little fun on this point, because we know more about most of the challengers than we would have in May.
King Guillermo won’t be a long shot, exactly, but he’s a bit of a mystery given that he hasn’t run since finishing second in the May 2 Arkansas Derby. He looked like a real contender way back in March, when he won the Tampa Bay Derby. His terrific morning breezes at Churchill Downs have given handicappers something to dream on. But little on his resume suggests he could match an on-form Tiz the Law.
The same might be said of Ny Traffic, who has finished second in each of his past three races but has never delivered a real knockout performance.
If Tiz the Law handles his business, what kind of Triple Crown challenge does that set up?
This question is of particular interest in Baltimore, where Tiz the Law would have his chance to join the glitziest club in racing on the first Saturday in October.
Horsemen and racing historians have generally agreed that a 2020 Triple Crown would come with an asterisk, given the scrambled order, the shorter distance of the Belmont Stakes and the elongated times between races. It’s also unclear how much the Derby and Preakness will capture the imagination of casual sports fans given the unfamiliar dates and pacing.
We already know these races will go down as some of the most unusual in the history of the Triple Crown series. But if Tiz the Law is a genuinely great horse and he proves it over the three most prestigious 3-year-old races in the country, could he transcend this COVID-19 context?
One thing we know for certain: The Preakness will be a lot more interesting if he has a chance to try.
146th Kentucky Derby
at Churchill Downs
Saturday, Sept. 5, 7:01 p.m.
Next in Triple Crown series: Preakness, Oct. 3