By Ed McNamara
Three undefeated 3-year-old stars in April, a trainer’s dream. He could not have had a stronger hand for a Kentucky Derby, but unfortunately for Bob Baffert, he wouldn’t be able to play it.
The menace of COVID-19 had pushed back the big race four months, delaying Baffert’s bid for a record-tying sixth victory. If Derby 146 had been run on the first Saturday in May, Baffert might have set an unbreakable record by finishing 1-2-3 with Nadal, Charlatan and Authentic. His consolation prize on May 2 was sweeping split divisions of the Arkansas Derby with Charlatan and Nadal, which turned out to be as good as it got for them and the 67-year-old Hall of Famer.
Twenty-six days later, Nadal, 4-for-4 and considered the best of the trio, was retired because of an ankle fracture. Charlatan not only had to be taken off the Derby trail with a minor ankle problem, but a drug positive also would cancel his Arkansas Derby victory.
Derby possibilities tremendous at one point
“We were on a tremendous schedule with my horses,” Baffert said. “They were peaking at the right time. Charlatan has brilliant speed, and Nadal was a fighter. They were going to be right there. They were going to be the top horses in the Derby. I couldn’t have been any stronger going in, and all of a sudden, boom, the whole thing blows up.”
Even though Baffert still has the erratic, 4-for-5 Authentic and long shot Thousand Words for Saturday’s classic, as a Texas Hold ‘Em hand they’re only a middle pair, not three aces. Authentic ranks fourth in the Derby pecking order behind Tiz the Law, Art Collector and Honor A.P., with Thousand Words in the middle of the pack even though he upset Honor A.P. in their last race, the Shared Belief at Del Mar.
Thoroughbreds are magnificent creatures as fragile as the dreams they carry, and Baffert knew it would be hard to keep his big three healthy and in top form until Labor Day weekend. One of his mantras is “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” and this time it wasn’t.
“Well, it’s just that things happen. They’re athletes and unfortunately, they get injured,” Baffert said. “Losing Nadal and Charlatan, those were massive hits right there. It’s been a weird year, and it’s been frustrating. I stopped on Authentic [for a month], completely shut him down.
“I had a strong group, but we just have to move on. You’ve just got to deal with what you’ve got. I’ve always had a motto ‘Never look back,’ and fortunately, I still have a few left.”
Authentic, Thousand Words get new riders for Derby
No trainer but Baffert could have lost two standouts for the Derby and still be in with a chance.
Oddly, neither Authentic nor Thousand Words will have the rider from his last race. After Authentic hung on by a nose against Ny Traffic in the Haskell, Mike Smith jumped off to stay with Honor A.P., who handed Authentic his only defeat June 6 in the Santa Anita Derby. Two-time Derby hero John Velazquez picked up the mount on Authentic, with Florent Geroux replacing Abel Cedillo on Thousand Words.
“Authentic has lots of talent,” Baffert said. “Ability is something he doesn’t lack, but he’s still learning. He’s a funny horse, he looks around a lot. But when [Ny Traffic] came to him in the Haskell, he took off again. He wasn’t tired.”
Besides the lapses of focus – two poor starts, two incidents in the stretch – there is doubt about Authentic’s ability to get 1¼ miles after he lost ground late both times at 1 1/8 miles. His 1:38.60 mile workout Aug. 25 at Del Mar was encouraging. “He went nice, very nice,” Baffert told drf.com. “He’s the forgotten horse.”
Thousand Words was a Derby prospect in February after improving to 3-for-3 in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Then he fell apart, losing three in a row by a total of 44 lengths entering the Shared Belief. He looked like a no-hoper against 1-5 Honor A.P., so Cedillo, with nothing to lose, put the 9-1 shot on the lead in the four-horse field. Thousand Words set moderate fractions, turned back a stretch challenge from stablemate Cezanne and drew off by three-quarters of a length.
“The real Thousand Words showed up,” Baffert said. “He had soured out on me, but we got him going the right way. He earned his way to the Derby.”
Speed may not work well for Baffert’s duo
On paper, the Derby field has a lot of speed, which creates a difficult scenario for Baffert’s horses. Even if Authentic leads into the first turn, it’s unlikely he’ll be left alone. And if he breaks poorly, as he did in the Santa Anita Derby, his race could be over immediately. Besides Ny Traffic, Art Collector and Storm the Court are pace factors, and heavy favorite Tiz the Law, King Guillermo shouldn’t be far behind.
Thousand Words seems up against it. His pace figures say he’s not quick enough to keep up early in the Derby, and he’s not a very strong finisher. Geroux said he’ll discuss tactics with Baffert, although the jockey expects Thousand Words probably will be “up in the pace.”
Co-owner of Authentic certainly not overconfident
Baffert “really likes” Authentic, and doubting Mr. Derby’s opinion is dangerous. A package of Baffert, a quality speed horse, the wily Johnny V. and perhaps 6-1 odds is tempting. Co-owner Jack Wolf, head of Starlight Racing, is hopeful but far from overconfident.
“Authentic has been training very well, and he’s come out of the Haskell in good order,” Wolf said. “But Tiz the Law is going to be tough to beat. He’s the only one with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and I hope we can keep him from winning the second leg.”
Wolf admits Authentic’s mental lapses and stamina are concerns.
“He didn’t finish well in the Haskell, so you have to be of one of two schools of thought,” he said. “It’s either that he can’t get a mile and a quarter or that he’s just a lazy, immature horse.
“I hope it’s not that he can’t get a mile and a quarter. His pedigree suggests he may be limited to a mile and an eighth. We’ll see if he can hold his speed for a mile and a quarter, and I hope that he can.”