The crowd of photographers waiting to capture the latest Kentucky Derby winner was not as robust as it would have been in a non-pandemic year.
But Bob Baffert assumed a familiar position Sunday morning, beaming as he showed off his record-tying sixth Derby champion, Authentic, outside his Barn 33 at Churchill Downs.
Baffert pulled off one of the best training jobs of his Hall of Fame career to build Authentic from a horse with stamina questions to the hardened competitor that would not let Tiz the Law pass him in the stretch run of Saturday’s Derby.
He gave equal credit to 48-year jockey John Velazquez, who pairs with Baffert infrequently but did a masterful job steering Authentic from his far outside post to an early lead that he would never relinquish. A “perfect ride,” Baffert called it.
Now, he and Velazquez will turn their attention to Baltimore and the Oct. 3 Preakness Stakes, a race Baffert has won seven times. Authentic came out of the Derby in good shape and will remain in Kentucky to prepare for the Preakness under the watch of Baffert’s old friend and rival, D. Wayne Lukas.
“I thought he’d be a little tired, but the track was in really good shape and it was fast and he got over it really well,” Baffert said Sunday morning. “They were planning on leaving tomorrow for California but being that the Preakness is a few weeks away, I thought it might be a little too hard for him to go back.
“We’ll just run him out of here. If he’s working well and all is going well, then he’ll go to the Preakness. We want to give him every opportunity.”
The question is whether Authentic will face Tiz the Law in a rematch at Pimlico Race Course. Hopes for a unique Preakness, with a Triple Crown on the line, evaporated Saturday when the Belmont Stakes winner could not surge past Authentic after pulling side by side with him a half-mile from the finish.
“I haven’t seen a speed figure but it sounds like he bounced a little bit off the big Travers effort, and [trainer] Barclay [Tagg] has a question that maybe he just really doesn’t like the racetrack,” Tiz the Law’s owner, Jack Knowlton, said Sunday. “Watching him finish, he said he was kind of swimming a little bit maybe coming down the stretch. But, he ran the race that we were looking for. He got the trip. [Jockey] Manny [Franco] gave him a great ride and he just didn’t beat one horse. There’s no shame in running second in the Kentucky Derby.”
Knowlton and Tagg offered conflicting thoughts on Tiz the Law’s Preakness plans Saturday evening, with Knowlton saying he’d like to target the race and Tagg telling the Albany Times Union he saw no reason to head for Baltimore with the Breeders’ Cup Classic looming in November.
But Knowlton said he was still leaning toward a Preakness entry as of Sunday morning.
“He ran good and came out of it great. I was over at the barn this morning and all is well,” he said. “I’ll have that discussion with Barclay and we’ll take a little time to see. My thinking is that we will, but we’ll have the horse dictate what’s going to happen. Certainly that would be my preference but we’ve just got to see how he comes out and see how he works when we have the next work in a couple weeks.”
If Authentic and Tiz the Law both show up, the Preakness could boast a stronger field than either the Belmont or the Derby. That would not make up for the lack of a Triple Crown narrative or for the absence of fans at Maryland’s most attended annual sporting event. But it would at least create allure for racing lovers. Organizers will take any hook they can get after watching a spectator-free Derby take a sharp revenue hit. With no one on hand to bet in person, handle for the race dropped from $165.5 million in 2019 to $79.4 million Saturday.
Beyond Authentic and Tiz the Law, four late scratches from the Derby field — Art Collector, Baffert-trained Thousand Words, King Guillermo and Finnick the Fierce — are expected to target the Preakness.
Art Collector would likely have been the second choice in the morning line at Churchill Downs if trainer Thomas Drury had not pulled him from the field because of a minor foot injury.
Thousand Words was set to go off as the fourth betting choice in the Derby until he flipped over in the paddock and was scratched by an on-site veterinarian. Baffert’s assistant, Jimmy Barnes, broke his wrist as he tried to settle the horse. But Baffert said Thousand Words “didn’t even have a scratch on him” and should be fine for the Preakness.
Trainer Bret Calhoun said Mr. Big News, who finished third in the Derby as a 46-1 long shot, is also likely headed for Baltimore.
Other possible Preakness entrants include Mystic Guide and Dr. Post, who finished first and fourth, respectively, in Saturday’s Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen could try to win his third Preakness with fourth-place Belmont finisher Pneumatic. He won impressively in his most recent race, the Aug. 15 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park.
Another Baffert-trained horse, Azul Coast, is in the mix, as is Lebda, winner of the March 14 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park. A potentially crowded field could also include Manitoba Derby winner Mongolian Wind.
Finally, the winner of Monday’s Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park will automatically qualify for the Preakness field. Todd Pletcher-trained Happy Saver is the favorite in that $100,000 race.
145TH PREAKNESS STAKES
Pimlico Race Course
TV: Chs. 11, 4