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Authentic upsets Tiz the Law in Kentucky Derby: three takeaways

There will be no Triple Crown on the line in the Oct. 3 Preakness Stakes after Authentic upset Tiz the Law in the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby. Here are three takeaways from Authentic’s victory:

This Derby weekend reminded us why they run the races.

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Perhaps we should have known what was coming after Gamine, thought to be one of the most gifted fillies in years, fell short in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks, beaten by 15-1 shot Shedaresthedevil.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert was on the wrong end of that upset. On Saturday, he would try to play spoiler against overwhelming Kentucky Derby favorite Tiz the Law. The afternoon certainly did not start well for Baffert; one of his two contenders, Thousand Words, toppled over in the paddock before the Derby and had to be scratched. The trainer’s trusty assistant, Jimmy Barnes, broke either his hand or arm in trying to settle the horse.

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So Baffert was down to one chance. His other contender, Authentic, would have to get to the lead quickly and hold on for dear life against Tiz the Law. Skeptics questioned whether he could handle the distance, while Tiz the Law had already won at 1¼ miles with energy to spare in the Travers Stakes.

The 7-10 favorite had revealed no weaknesses in winning all four of his starts as a 3-year-old, including the June 20 Belmont Stakes. He broke sharply Saturday, and jockey Manny Franco moved him to his preferred stalking position, about 2½ lengths behind Authentic. The whole scenario set up perfectly for another majestic performance by Tiz the Law as he mounted an unconventional Triple Crown attempt.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the finish line: Authentic would not surrender his lead. Jockey John Velazquez held enough of the colt’s energy in reserve, and Tiz the Law’s top-of-the-stretch move was perhaps not as sharp as it had been in the Travers or the Belmont. The two horses dueled all the way, and when it ended, Baffert had his record-tying sixth Derby victory.

Ever the realist, he probably traveled to Louisville expecting a win for Gamine and a game effort in defeat by Authentic. But that’s why these races confound and excite us year after year. The most talented horse isn’t always best at the crucial moment, and narratives twist back on themselves in the most unexpected ways.

We won’t have an asterisk-tagged Triple Crown winner this year, but we did get a Derby that reinforced the essential nature of the sport.

Authentic, with jockey John Velazquez up, celebrates after winning the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Louisville, Kentucky.
Authentic, with jockey John Velazquez up, celebrates after winning the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America/TNS)

There is no coherent story as the Triple Crown series heads for its conclusion in Baltimore.

So much for all those planned conversations about how to contextualize Tiz the Law’s Triple Crown challenge.

When the re-ordered Triple Crown schedule was announced in May, all we could think about was the possibility of a horse trying to join the exclusive club in Baltimore on Oct. 3. Tiz the Law seemed to have as good a chance to pull it off as Justify in 2018 or American Pharoah in 2015. He shared their brilliance, and he would not face the usual 1½-mile finishing exam at Belmont Park or have to run three times in five weeks.

His 82-year-old trainer, Barclay Tagg, came up in Maryland and would lend local flavor to the story.

Yes, Tiz the Law’s quest would come with an asterisk, most racing historians agreed, but his excellence lent coherence to a Triple Crown series run without fans and shadowed by unsettling news about the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing protests against racial injustice sweeping American cities.

Now that he’s faltered, the Preakness Stakes will feel like just another prestigious horse race, robbed of its sprawling crowd and the accompanying infield bacchanal.

Sure, it could feature an appealing rematch between Authentic and Tiz the Law (though Tagg said he’s leaning against taking his horse to Baltimore). Not to mention two contenders scratched from the Derby field in the week before the race — Art Collector and King Guillermo — who are now pointed toward the Preakness as fresh challengers.

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Art Collector, undefeated in four starts this year, would likely have been the second choice in the morning line at Churchill Downs. Trainer Tom Drury scratched him because of a minor foot injury, but he’s expected to be ready to run in Baltimore. King Guillermo had not raced in four months leading up to the Derby, and trainer Juan Carlos Avila scratched him from the field Thursday because of a fever. But he created some buzz before that with a series of sharp workouts, and if he regains that form in the run-up to the Preakness, he could draw some interest from bettors.

So the field will be just fine. But think about the lack of buzz around the Belmont Stakes when there’s no Triple Crown on the line. Then multiply that times the strangeness of a Preakness held in the fall with no fans. Like almost everything else in 2020, it will be an odd experience to wrap our heads around.

Authentic, with jockey John Velazquez, rides to victory in the 146th Kentucky Derby, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Authentic upset Tiz the Law, the Belmont champ, to capture America's most famous race, this year contested in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has altered the whole of the sporting world.
Authentic, with jockey John Velazquez, rides to victory in the 146th Kentucky Derby, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020. Authentic upset Tiz the Law, the Belmont champ, to capture America's most famous race, this year contested in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has altered the whole of the sporting world. (Christian Hansen/The New York Times)

Tiz the Law has joined the ranks of excellent horses who won’t be remembered outside the sport.

It’s a shame casual fans never really got to invest in this classy horse, who dusted rivals with commanding bursts of speed and never seemed flummoxed by the next challenge thrown his way.

In all his years in the game, Tagg had never worked with a horse, not even 2003 Derby and Preakness champion Funny Cide, who met every test with such poise and grace. Tiz the Law was just so easy to work with.

Like the rest of us, Tagg assumed his champion would pass Authentic in the stretch on Saturday. Why would he think anything else based on his experience with Tiz the Law? The bay colt, with his broad white blaze gleaming under the Kentucky sun, did himself no dishonor. He broke as well as ever, settled into his favorite spot at Franco’s direction and did his best to win when the time came.

But he did not win. And even if he comes back to take the Preakness and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November, the Derby defeat will consign him to the swollen ranks of great racehorses largely unremembered by casual fans.

It’s the harsh reality of a niche sport.

145th Preakness Stakes

at Pimlico Race Course

Saturday, Oct. 3 TV: NBC

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