Four months later than expected, it’s finally Kentucky Derby week at Churchill Downs. Here are five things to know about this unprecedented and (hopefully) unique renewal of the Run for the Roses.
1. When the Kentucky Derby was postponed from its traditional date on the first Saturday in May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one obvious expectation was that we’d wind up with a group of major contenders that were stronger, faster, and more mentally mature than they would have been in the spring. No horse in the field personifies those qualities more acutely than favorite Tiz the Law, who has gone from strength to strength through a series of four preps, culminating with a powerful score in the Travers (G1) over the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles. Although a record streak of six consecutive victories by the Derby post-time favorite was halted last year, the beginning of a new streak will be widely expected as Tiz the Law threatens to be the shortest-priced favorite since Arazi went off as the 9-10 choice in 1992.
2. Trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith teamed up to register one of the biggest upsets in Derby history 15 years ago when Giacomo rallied to win at odds of 50-1. Their hope this year, Honor A. P., is cut from a different cloth and figures to be no worse than third choice on Saturday. The long-striding son of Honor Code looked ready-made for 1 1/4 miles (and longer) with an impressive, off-the-pace victory in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) in early June. Although his past performances are riddled with layoff lines, Honor A. P. has seemingly been trained to peak at opportune times, thus his last-out setback in the Shared Belief S. at Del Mar over a much shorter 1 1/16-mile trip shouldn’t necessarily dissuade followers who jumped on his bandwagon in June or earlier.
3. The late withdrawal Tuesday morning of Art Collector, who was expected to be the second choice in the wagering, has given additional hope to many other entrants. Inasmuch as the betting market was largely going to view the Derby as a three-horse race for the win and major placings, horsemen with longer-priced contenders perhaps will find more reason to be optimistic about their chances at getting a significant share, or possibly more if one or both Tiz the Law and Honor A. P. run below par. Additional negative developments between the post position draw and post time are quite common, and Derby history is replete with numerous stars who unfortunately had to back out at the 11th hour. Examples include would-be favorites Sir Gaylord (1962), I Want Revenge (2009), and Omaha Beach (2019), as well as Hall of Famer A.P. Indy (1992).
4. The Kentucky Derby’s delay by four months has resulted in some rather unconventional preparations for several aspirants. One notable example is King Guillermo, who runs Saturday having not raced since finishing second in a division of the Arkansas Derby (G1) on May 2, the Kentucky Derby’s original date. That’s the equivalent of holding your final prep on the first Saturday in January for a normally-scheduled Derby, and no horse since 1922 has won the Derby off a layoff of this length or longer. Others looking to win the Derby off a historically long break include Sole Volante, a distant sixth to Tiz the Law in the June 20 Belmont Stakes (G1) when last seen. Even the Haskell (G1) one-two finishers, Authentic and Ny Traffic, will have had an unconventionally long gap of seven weeks between their final prep and the Derby. The rigors of the extended Derby prep period, along with the imposing stature of the leading contenders, could result in less than 20 horses passing the entry box. This has left the door open for a horse like Money Moves to make the Derby field despite having never previously competed in a stakes (the last horse to win the Derby in his stakes debut was Exterminator in 1918).
5. His three Derby starters last year were placed fourth (as the favorite), fifth, and 15th, but five-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert will get another chance to tie Ben Jones’ record of six Derby wins when he sends out Authentic and Thousand Words on Saturday. Although the speedy Authentic has been one of Baffert’s top prospects since early January—and his leading one since Nadal and Charlatan left the scene in the spring—the conventional wisdom surrounding the colt is that he’ll find the tenth furlong of the Derby at least one too far. The grinding Thousand Words was one of the more accomplished of the stable’s juveniles last year when taking the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), but he hit a rough patch in form last spring and only recently emerged from the slump with a surprise, wire-to-wire win over Honor A. P. in the Shared Belief. Baffert has pulled minor surprises in Derbys past with the likes of Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002), but it might be his biggest one yet if either of these two were to topple the big three here.