By Bill Finley
The Authentic (Into Mischief) who won the GI Haskell S. at Monmouth by a nose didn't look like a horse that could win the GI Kentucky Derby. Against a field decidedly weaker than what he would face seven weeks later at Churchill Downs, he nearly squandered a 2 1/2-length lead in the stretch and seemed to be running on fumes in the last few yards of the mile-and-an-eighth race. The mile-and-a-quarter loomed as a major obstacle.
Even trainer Bob Baffert acknowledged that Authentic needed to take things to another level.
“I'm happy with him. But he still has a lot of improving to do,” he said after the Haskell. “We're going to work on him a little until then (the Derby).”
Complicating matters in the Derby, Authentic didn't break sharply, compromising his chances. By the time he made the lead, the field had completed the opening quarter-mile in 22.92.
So when Tiz the Law (Constitution) ranged alongside Authentic at the quarter pole in the Derby, the race appeared to be over. But it was a different Authentic that showed up Saturday. He didn't lose his focus and he had something left in the tank for the final furlong. He actually spurted clear of Tiz the Law to win by 1 1/4 lengths.
“Yeah, I heard all of that. People saying after the Haskell he definitely can't go that far,” said John Velazquez, who picked up the mount when Mike Smith chose to ride Honor A.P. (Honor Code). “The mile-and-a-quarter will be very far for him. I was very confident. I've got a good trainer.”
That much is obvious. Somehow, Baffert orchestrated a complete makeover of Authentic. Much of the work seems to have been accomplished in the mornings. Baffert is known for working his horses fast but took a different approach with Authentic. His works included a one-mile breeze in 1:38.60, part of a pattern that included longer and slower works than what you normally see from the Hall of Fame trainer. The end result was a more composed horse who thrived at a mile-and-a-quarter.
Back in May, Authentic was being overshadowed by Nadal (Blame) and Charlatan (Speightstown), horses who were typical of what the Baffert operation has been producing over the last many years. Like American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) and Justify (Scat Daddy), they didn't necessarily need any help from their trainer. They accomplished what they accomplished because they were super talented. Authentic is a very good horse, but also an example of the type of horse who might not have won the Derby with any other trainer.
With Baffert starting out every year with 50 or 60 superbly bred, expensive 2-year-olds, he has a chance every year to come into the Derby with a hand that is stronger than any of his rivals. That is among the reasons he has six Kentucky Derby wins, tying him with Ben Jones for first place among all trainers. Baffert will surely get to No. 7 before he's done and could easily win 10 or so. If that happens he will unquestionably be the greatest Derby trainer in history.
In the meantime, the Ben Jones-versus-Baffert debate is an interesting one.
Jones needed only 11 starts in the Derby to record his six wins, which were accomplished over a 14-year span from 1938 to 1952. Baffert has started 33 horses in the Derby over 24 years. But he has been operating in an era where there are far more foals and the number of starters in the Derby is often 20. Jones won three Derbies where there were 11 or fewer starters, including in 1948 when Citation topped a field of six.
The other factor that must be considered is that many believe that Ben Jones was not the trainer of Citation and it was, instead, his son Jimmy Jones. The younger Jones was listed as Citation's trainer for the first 15 starts of his career before being entered under the name of Ben for the Derby Trial and the Derby. After the Derby, Citation continued to run in Jimmy's name. The move was made to give Ben a chance to draw closer to Herbert “Derby Dick” Thompson for most Derby wins by a trainer. Thompson had four at the time.
Baffert said Sunday morning that both Authentic and Thousand Words (Pioneerof the Nile) will likely go next in the GI Preakness S. Baffert has seven Preakness wins, tying him for first with R. Wyndham Walden, who dominated the race in the late 1800s. With Baffert heading to Baltimore with a new and improved Authentic, win No. 8 may only be four weeks away.
Preakness Could Decide 3-Year-Old Championship
Entering Saturday, Tiz the Law looked like a cinch to win the 3-year-old championship, but not anymore as Authentic is in the mix. A Preakness win could vault Authentic into the top spot in the division, where he would remain if neither he nor Tiz the Law wins the GI Breeders' Cup Classic. Jack Knowlton, who heads the group that owns Tiz the Law, is well aware of the possible scenarios.
“I think we are still in the lead for the Eclipse, but if Authentic goes there and wins he'll be in the lead,” Knowlton said. “I'd like to go there and win that race. If we do that and beat Authentic that would put an exclamation point on the end of the sentence. If neither of us win, I think we'd be in a better position with three Grade I wins. That's where I am.
“In all likelihood, he has a better chance of winning the Preakness than the Breeders' Cup Classic, where you'd be facing horses like Tom's d'Etat [Smart Strike], Maximum Security [Maximum Security] and some other really good older horses. I'd like one more go against the 3-year-olds.”
Knowlton said no decision has been reached yet concerning the Preakness and admitted that trainer Barclay Tagg is reluctant to run him there.
Kudos to Churchill Stewards
The Churchill Downs stewards could not have handled the disqualification of Maximum Security in last year's Derby any worse. First, they failed to post an inquiry into what was clearly a very roughly run race and then they refused to take any questions from the media after issuing a brief statement that left a lot of questions unanswered.
Apparently, they have learned from their mistakes. After Friday's sixth race, which involved the disqualification of Lasting Legacy (Tapizar), the chief steward Barbara Borden come on the track's television feed to explain the decision. Stewards' reports involving DQ's are also posted on the Churchill Downs website.
Let's hope other tracks follow Churchill's lead. Transparency is never a bad thing.
Another Horse Wins After Drastic Late Odds Drop
By now, horseplayers are used to seeing dramatic drops in the odds after the field leaves the gate, but what happened in Saturday's second race at Saratoga was hard to fathom. When the horses loaded into the gate, Vineyard Sound (Stormy Atlantic) was 24-1. While the race was being run Vineyard Sound dropped to 11-1. A winner, of course, Vineyard Sound paid off at 8-1.
Saying it again: horse racing is the only gambling game where you can win a bet and feel like you've lost.