New on Sports Illustrated: Fortune Finds Bob Baffert Amid Turbulent Year for Record-Tying Sixth Derby Win

September 06, 2020 at 09:48AM

Despite Bob Baffert being perhaps the best trainer in Derby history, 2020 didn't seem like it was his year. But maybe the fifth-best 3-year-old horse in his barn pulled out a historic win for him on Saturday.

LOUISVILLE — As an orange sunset streaked the bottom of a cloudless sky at the end of a perfect and perfectly surreal Kentucky Derby Saturday, Sylvester Watkins waited for Bob Baffert.

The thoroughbred trainer had just won his record-tying sixth Derby with Authentic, maybe the fifth-best 3-year-old in Baffert’s loaded barn in the spring. Baffert went through hell between the first Saturday in May — when the Derby always is held in non-pandemic times — and its rescheduled running on the first Saturday in September. He ran the gamut of racing melodrama: big wins, brutal defeats, devastating injuries and a drug suspension.

Now, after choking up at the podium while discussing his breathtaking swings of fortune, here was the 67-year-old Baffert emerging from the Churchill Downs media center and finding Watkins keeping vigil on the paddock bricks. “Mr. Baffert,” Watkins said, jokingly, “I thought you didn’t have any picks for me?”

The man spent Derby Day working security at the tunnel that leads from the Churchill barn area to the front side of the massive racetrack. That morning he saw Baffert walking toward the tunnel to hitch a ride in a golf cart (“Once you see that white hair, you know it’s him,” Watkins said). He asked him which of his Derby horses — Thousand Words or Authentic — to bet on.

Baffert shrugged off the question, saying he didn’t know. Truth is, Baffert hates handicapping how his horses will run. Also the truth: he really wasn’t sure he had one capable of beating the commanding Derby favorite, Tiz The Law.

Having just scored one of his most improbable Derby triumphs, Baffert could afford to laugh at the question from Watkins. As a make-good for not touting his horse, he reached into his pocket and peeled off three $100 bills, handing them to Watkins. Then he peeled off two more Ben Franklins and gave them to Watkins’ friend and fellow track worker, Ike Kinnison. Then he handed out one more hundo to a kid who was standing nearby. Watkins’ girlfriend, Sophia Thorn, fished around in her purse and found a $2 win-place-show ticket on Authentic, showing it to Baffert’s wife, Jill.

And so — on a day marked by racial protests outside the track, in a city scarred by the police killing of Black woman Breonna Taylor in her own home — the white trainer from Southern California threw his arms around two working-class Black men from Louisville and posed for pictures.

It was a lovely scene to cap a day of mayhem, both race-related and racing-related. There were non-violent protests in the streets and injuries in the paddock and nobody in the stands, and yet somehow the Derby was run and the result was — as always — enough to leave your heart pounding for a while afterward.

There was a bizarre injury before the race. Baffert’s longtime assistant trainer, Jimmy Barnes, broke either his hand or his arm (Baffert said both) when Thousand Words reared up in the paddock and tipped over. That resulted in a scratch of the horse just minutes before the race and a trip to the hospital for Barnes, who didn’t get to see Authentic pull off the victory. Jill Baffert nearly fainted in the paddock after that went down.

There was near-injury after the race, when Authentic grew agitated by the long ribbon attached to the garland of roses that is traditionally placed atop the winner for photo ops. The colt spun around in the winner’s circle, knocking over Baffert and inflicting minor injury on one member of the sprawling ownership group.

And there was stunning defeat for Tiz The Law — undefeated in 2020, dominant winner of the Belmont and Travers Stakes, lowest-priced Derby favorite in 31 years at 4-5, and in perfect position before being outdueled in the stretch. The result left Sackatoga Stable operating manager Jack Knowlton rooted in place where he watched the race along the rail. Knowlton kept his elbows on the aluminum and palms pressed together for what seemed like an eternity afterward, while the rest of the ownership group stood around him in silence. “We finally ran up against a horse that was better that day,” Knowlton said.

A better horse. A better jockey, in savvy John Velazquez, who gave Authentic a masterful ride to win his third Derby. And a better trainer in Baffert. Arguably the best trainer in Derby history. When it seems there is nothing you can be sure of on in 2020, Bob Baffert is the old reliable.

And then the day ended with Baffert and two track workers hugging it out. That kumbaya moment doesn’t eradicate any racial divide, in this city or this nation, but everyone walked away beaming.

“This is what we need more of,” Baffert said. “Right here.”

“Blessings on blessings,” Watkins said.

Blessed? Please. Bob Baffert had to feel cursed for a period of about four months.

“I’ve never been so loaded,” he said. “Then things just started going haywire.”

It started on May 2nd, which was the original Kentucky Derby race date. With the calendar scrambled by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arkansas Derby — a key Derby prep — was moved to that day. The race was run in two divisions, and Baffert won them both in dominant fashion. Undefeated Nadal won one, and undefeated Charlatan won the other. On the undercard that day, Baffert-trained filly Gamine also romped to victory. They all looked like monsters, and there were other high-priced, well-bred Baffert trainees waiting in the wings — Uncle Chuck and Cezanne.

Then, the haywire.

Word leaked out that Charlatan and Gamine had failed tests for a banned substance in the first of two tested samples. It took forever to get the split sample back, but the results confirmed the first reading — both horses had lidocaine in their systems. They were disqualified, and Baffert was given a 15-day suspension in Arkansas.

The explanation from Baffert was that Barnes, who had broken his wrist earlier in the year and was suffering from back pain, had a pain-relieving patch on his back and had gotten some of the treatment on his hands. That was then transferred to the horses.

It was another in a long line of interesting and not completely believable explanations for a positive drug test in athletics. And it left a mark on Baffert, who has been the face of the sport in recent years — especially after winning the Triple Crown in 2015 with American Pharoah and in ’18 with Justify. But that was just part of the spiral.

In late May, Nadal suffered a career-ending injury, fracturing an ankle. In early June, Charlatan also was injured, knocking him off the Triple Crown trail. And Authentic was beaten in the Santa Anita Derby in early June as well, as the 1-2 favorite.

Baffert didn’t enter anyone in the Belmont in June, as the Triple Crown rearranged its calendar. (Normally it is Derby-Preakness-Belmont, but this year it is Belmont-Derby-Preakness.) Gamine was a spectacular winner on the Belmont undercard that day, but was never pointed toward races against colts. Uncle Chuck and Cezanne never did enough to move forward into Derby contention.

So Baffert pointed toward Louisville with Authentic coming off a wobbly win in the Haskell Invitational in New Jersey and Thousand Words coming off a stakes race win at Del Mar in San Diego. It wasn’t a bad hand, but not the flush hand he envisioned weeks earlier.

"This is the craziest year ever,” Baffert said. “It's tough. It's tough on me. It's tough on my wife, Jill. The ups and downs we had. I had four horses ready to roll … And just things happen.”

Things kept happening in Louisville. On Friday in the Kentucky Oaks, even-money favorite Gamine was collared in the stretch and upset by a 15-to-1 shot, Shedaresthedevil. And then in the paddock before the Derby Saturday, all hell broke loose with Thousand Words.

The horse resisted being saddled in the paddock, suddenly rearing up and toppling over on his side. That resulted in an immediate scratch by the racing stewards and in an injury to Barnes, who had been trying to cinch the saddle tight. Barnes left Churchill and was taken to a hospital before the race was even run. The horse was unhurt, according to a track veterinarian.

That was one more stunning reversal of fortune for Baffert.

“It just doesn't end,” Baffert said to himself after the Thousand Words scratch and Barnes’ injury. “It just keeps going. … I was like, ‘I can't take this anymore.’ And then this horse pulls it out.”

John Velazquez had never been on Authentic’s back before Saturday. While perhaps not ideal, it’s not unheard of in horse racing. Jockeys play musical chairs with mounts in the run-up to big races.

Velazquez followed Mike Smith, who followed Drayden Van Dyke, as the rider of Authentic. Van Dyke is a dependable SoCal rider who does a lot of work for Baffert, but after losing the Santa Anita Derby Baffert turned to Big Money Mike, the jockey who rode Justify to the Triple Crown.

Smith rode Authentic to the win in the Haskell, but nearly was passed in the stretch. Baffert had instructed Smith to go to a left-handed whip in the stretch to keep Authentic from lugging in toward the rail, but Smith instead tried the softer approach — he chirped in the horse's ear. That didn’t work, because Authentic was wearing ear plugs.

“Mike didn’t know he had earplugs in his ears,” Baffert said.

Smith wound up riding Honor A.P. in the Derby, the horse that beat Authentic in the Santa Anita. That left an opening for Velazquez, primarily an East Coast rider who has first call on top mounts for trainer Todd Pletcher. With Pletcher’s barn coming up nearly empty for the Derby, Johnny V was available and Baffert grabbed him.

The jockey and trainer broke bread Derby Week at Jeff Ruby’s, the popular downtown Louisville steakhouse. Over steaks they hatched their strategy for the race: get away cleanly, go for the lead early, and then save something for the long Churchill stretch run.

“Make sure you save that eighth of a mile,” Velazquez remembered Baffert telling him. “I want that eighth of a mile.”

After cruising to the lead on brisk fractions, Authentic was in perfect position coming around the far turn. But so was Tiz The Law, looming up alongside. As they headed into the stretch, Tiz The Law — a horse Baffert admitted he thought was “unbeatable” — appeared poised to roll past a pacesetter who had run quite fast to that point.

“I was expecting him to move right on by,” Knowlton said.

It never happened. Tiz The Law may have stuck a nose in front, although Velazquez said later, “he never passed him.” Then Johnny V followed Baffert’s instructions: wait for the last furlong of the 1 1/4-mile race, and go to a left-handed whip.

Baffert didn’t want Authentic veering toward the rail again. A left-handed whip would keep the horse away from that, and keep him engaged with Tiz The Law. The favorite lurched a bit, Authentic dug in, and then he pulled away for the victory at 9-to-1 odds.

Authentic finished in 2:00.61, the seventh-fastest of the 146 Kentucky Derbies. It was an extraordinary performance — setting a stout pace, then holding off the charge of a horse who looked like he had the makings of a Triple Crown winner.

And so Bob Baffert wins a sixth Derby with a fifth-stringer, one he actually put on the training shelf for a couple of weeks in the spring. The Derby delay to September turned out to be a blessing for a late May 2017 foal who wasn’t very mature.

Authentic is older now but still flighty. He proved that in the winner’s circle by taking down his trainer, among others, “like a bowling ball,” Baffert said.

Given the way this year has gone for the most accomplished American trainer of the last 25 years, it’s fitting that Bob Baffert wound up on his back. But the fact that it happened in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle made it all OK.

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