Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 6, 2020

Authentic Is The Real Thing, In A Derby That Isn’t Quite

“And they’re into the stretch!” cried announcer Larry Collmus, his voice a guttural growl. It was a familiar moment for sports fans, as the field of fifteen three-year-olds came off the final turn at Churchill Downs early Saturday evening. Even those whose attention rarely turns to horse racing know that when the thoroughbreds race past the red and white quarter pole at the old Louisville track, history is just one final charge down the home stretch away.

Familiar, and yet entirely different. Like so much else in this pandemic year, the Kentucky Derby joined other major sporting events in being upended and recast by COVID-19. Collmus’s cry rang out on NBC not on the first Saturday in May, but four months later, on Labor Day weekend. The postponement of the Derby from its traditional date meant that the first Triple Crown race was run not in Kentucky, but on Long Island, where the Belmont Stakes took place in June. The extended Derby trail also meant that for the first time in many years fewer than twenty horses went to the post. The schedule of qualifying races was as jumbled as the three legs of the Triple Crown, and some horses that earned a spot in the field were forced out by injury. Other owners chose not to make the journey or risk the investment in this strange year. Then the eventual eighteen-horse field was further reduced by three late scratches, the last of those coming when track veterinarians pulled Thousand Words from the race after he reared up and fell over backwards in the paddock as the horses were being saddled.

But as with so many other sports, the most profound alteration to Derby Day was the absence of fans. In any other year the backdrop to the excited shout from Collmus would have been the growing roar of 150,000 spectators screaming in support of their favored steed, as if decibels alone could somehow propel a horse and rider to the front of the pack. Proceeding without fans was a decision that the management of Churchill Downs was clearly reluctant to make. As recently as mid-August track officials were planning on admitting upwards of 25,000, only to wisely reverse course just two weeks before the race.

So it was that as Authentic and Tiz the Law led the sprinting parade of horses onto Churchill’s stretch, in place of the shouts of thousands the background music to the announcer’s call was the poor substitute of hooves pounding dirt amid the murmur of the thousand or so in attendance, track workers and those with official ties to one of the horses on the day’s racing card. After winning the Belmont and trouncing the field at the Travers, Tiz the Law had been sent off as the overwhelming 3-5 favorite. Authentic, in the stable of celebrity trainer Bob Baffert, left the post as the 8-1 third choice of bettors on the strength of victories in the San Felipe and the Haskell, along with a runner up finish in the Santa Anita Derby.

The two horses started side by side in the last two outside stalls of the starting gate. The first time by the non-existent crowd, Authentic as expected moved quickly to the front of the field, with Tiz the Law laying just a couple lengths off his flank. That is how they stayed as the race unfolded, the horse who likes to lead running in front, and the proven stalker just a short distance to his outside, both in their desired spots and both free of traffic or trouble.

That setup, combined with doubts among many horsemen about Authentic’s breeding giving him the ability to go a mile and a quarter, meant that when Manny Franco asked Tiz the Law to run as the two rounded the final turn and Collmus declared their arrival at history’s gate, the expectation was that the favorite would motor on past Authentic and move one step closer to the Triple Crown. But with the possible exception of a horse so-named, expectation alone has never won a race. Tiz the Law charged, and Authentic answered. “As they come to the final furlong, Authentic is digging in,” shouted Collmus. Indeed he was. Veteran jockey John Velazquez was in the saddle, and the two-time Derby winner urged his mount on. Rather than tiring, in the final yards Authentic opened a sliver of daylight over his rival, crossing the wire a length and a quarter ahead of Tiz the Law.

It was the 200th ride to victory in a Grade I race for Velazquez, and the sixth Derby win for Baffert, tying the all-time record for wins by a trainer. While there were fist bumps and hugs among Authentic’s connections, there was no roar of greeting when Velazquez brought Authentic back to the home stretch, no loud salute from fans as Baffert made his way from the paddock to the winner’s circle. In the end that told everyone that this Derby belonged to 2020. It was a reality that was brought home before the race, when the horses were called to the post.

That was when, in other years, the massive crowd would rise to sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” accompanying the playing of the state song by the University of Louisville band. This year there was no crowd and no band, only a moment of silence followed by track bugler Steve Buttleman’s solo trumpet. The song may well be the most controversial of state anthems, though it is worth remembering that in the context of the time Stephen Foster wrote it, “My Old Kentucky Home” was praised by Frederick Douglass, who wrote that it “awaken(s) the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.” Whatever one’s opinion, the song is ultimately a lament, a mournful elegy for all that has been lost, made enormously more powerful Saturday by the lonely echo of the single horn. It was a fitting sound for this year in sports.

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