Authentic confounds skeptics in 2020 Kentucky Derby

September 6th, 2020

As one of the Authentic skeptics going into the Kentucky Derby (G1), I put my hand up for misjudging his ability to carry his high speed for the duration of the 1 1/4-mile classic. At the same time, the unique circumstances of Derby 146 arguably turned out to be a vital assist.

The postponement gave Authentic, a May 5 foal, an additional four months to mature for Bob Baffert, who was tying Ben Jones’s record of six Derby wins. Perhaps the Hall of Famer could have conjured the same degree of improvement on the traditional Derby timetable. Still, aside from just the passage of time, Authentic would have had one less start under his belt. Considering his trajectory, that might have been crucial.  

Authentic's road to the Derby

There was never a doubt about his raw ability, but anyone who saw his wildly meandering finish in the Sham (G3) knew that he needed to work on the mental side of the game. Baffert prescribed earplugs for the San Felipe (G2), and Authentic responded with a thoroughly professional display.

But then came the Santa Anita Derby (G1), when Authentic reverted to being a work in progress. Ducking out at the start and losing several lengths, he sped forward to force the pace hung out wide, then had no answer when Honor A. P. simply powered past to win handily. Authentic boxed on for second, while not looking like a horse able to turn the tables going further.

The Haskell (G1) lent more substance to that belief. Although Authentic was straightforward (a la his San Felipe) for the first mile or so, he shortened stride in deep stretch and almost threw it away. Whether you looked askance from the perspective of stamina, or questioned his still-immature racing brain, either way this was a colt who did not appear ready to topple the well-oiled machine of Tiz the Law.

I freely confess that his pedigree – being by Into Mischief and out of the talented Mr. Greeley mare Flawless, from a family that’s more associated with brilliance – led me toward a more questioning stance. It’s fair to say that as a result, I set a higher bar for Authentic to prove himself. If he’d had the pedigree of Honor A. P., might I have been more indulgent toward his idiosyncrasies? I don’t know, but the pedigree definitely made it easier for me to doubt him in a cauldron like the Derby.

How Authentic won the Derby

Authentic’s drawing post 18 was another possible drawback, with the prospect of a Santa Anita Derby redux. That’s exactly what flashed to mind when he broke awkwardly at Churchill Downs, and found himself out of position in the opening strides.

But two key factors helped Authentic overcome it. The first was new rider John Velazquez, reminding everyone why he’s a Hall of Famer. Instead of making the oft-seen mistake of rushing up on a speed horse who fails to get away cleanly, Johnny V. let Authentic gather himself, and trusted in his natural quickness.

Authentic did the rest, striding past Storm the Court and Ny Traffic to get to the front and in his comfort zone. Here the second factor may have played a role – a couple of major defections during Derby Week. Art Collector had the speed to keep tabs on Authentic and the projected stamina to keep going, while King Guillermo was eligible to complicate the pace scenario as well. With both forced to stay in the barn, Authentic’s task was a bit easier.

That said, Authentic’s comfort zone is pretty fast. His fractions of :22.92, :46.41, 1:10.23, and 1:35.02 were more than legit at this trip, and as Tiz the Law cruised alongside, I thought for all the world that the odds-on favorite (and my top pick) was about to drive past with his customary authority.

But here again, Velazquez proved to be the perfect partner for Authentic. Heeding Baffert’s directive to use the left-handed whip to get the colt’s attention, he roused him to respond. The son of Into Mischief found plenty, not only to stave off Tiz the Law, but to pull away from him and finish in a brisk 2:00.61.

The stark contrast with the Haskell made me revisit his last prep. At the time, I was dismissive of Baffert’s comment that Authentic couldn’t hear jockey Mike Smith’s smooching to him to pick up because of the earplugs. Mainly that was because Authentic, despite his quirks, had no problem maintaining a substantial lead in the Sham or San Felipe. If he’d been the type to do just enough, or look workmanlike, it would have been more persuasive. Moreover, when Smith did urge Authentic with increasing urgency in deep stretch, he didn’t find too much. The wire came in time to rescue them both.

Now for the counterfactual: what if Smith had resorted to the left-handed whip? If Authentic spurts away at Monmouth, he enters the Derby with a totally different profile. While the stamina question would still have loomed, compared to familiar foe Honor A. P., Authentic could plausibly claim to have gotten his act together since the Santa Anita Derby.

The irony is that Smith is the regular rider of Honor A. P. Loyally sticking with that John Shirreffs trainee, Smith wasn’t going to ride Authentic in the Derby, and that left the door open for Velazquez to pick up his third Derby victory.

Honor A. P. and Tiz the Law

As Authentic worked out his best trip, Honor A. P. was in a virtually impossible position. That wasn’t Smith’s fault, for Honor A. P. did not break alertly, and Ny Traffic lurched right across his path. Worse, unlike Authentic, he didn’t travel well enough to secure position. Next to last in the 15-horse field, he hadn’t been that far back since his career debut at Del Mar last summer.

Honor A. P. finally mounted a long rally out wide to get up for a respectable fourth, so it’s tempting to wonder how much closer he would have gotten with anything like a typical trip. According to Trakus, he negotiated 49 feet more than Authentic, roughly around his beaten margin of five lengths. Yet given how much stronger Authentic was in this rubber match, it’s not mathematical proof that he could have won.

The real conundrum is Tiz the Law, who had everything fall into place as desired, only to be denied. He was beaten fair and square, but did not run near his best on the day. I’m inclined to think he left his Derby in the Travers (G1), and duplicating that effort four weeks later was more of an issue than I thought.

The lesser hypothesis focuses on Tiz the Law's second failure at Churchill, now the site of his only two losses. His third in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) had been chalked up to his troubled trip in the slop, but it’s possible he isn’t in love with the track. If so, he’d be in good company with Easy Goer and Skip Away, although the former caught mud both times and the latter threw in absolute clunkers here. Tiz the Law has still run well in defeat, so the surface isn’t my preferred explanation.

Others to note

There figured to be a big surprise package somewhere in the exotics, and congratulations to the clever handicappers who divined third-placer Mr. Big News. The 46-1 shot made the bold move that I had hoped would come from Sole Volante (who was a no-show in 11th). With 0 Derby points from unplaced efforts in a pair of scoring races, and originally pointing for the American Turf (G2) on the undercard, Mr. Big News relished the classic distance. Or maybe he just loves Gabriel Saez. The only other time they teamed up, Saez engineered his upset of the Oaklawn S., also at 46-1.

Of the rest, Max Player posted the fastest final quarter (:25.13) to close for fifth. Granted, he had a shorter way around than Honor A. P. who clocked a next-best :25.31, but Max Player continues to turn in useful efforts. The question now is whether he ever builds on these, or remains a bridesmaid at the top level.

The prolonged 2020 Derby trail threw one final curveball in the paddock as Baffert’s other hope, Thousand Words, reared and flipped in an incident that looked terrifying on video. His last-minute scratch was gutting for a colt who was peaking for the Derby, but I feared more for his well-being. Amazingly, he escaped injury, and on Sunday, Baffert was talking about advancing to the Preakness (G1) along with his Derby-winning stablemate.

End of the 2020 Derby trail

The freak mishap to Thousand Words was a reminder of the leading contenders Baffert lost along the way. Had Derby 146 been conducted on May 2, both Nadal and Charlatan would have been on the premises in top form. With their similarly forward running styles, both were entitled to serve it up to Authentic in a traditional Run for the Roses. Credit Authentic for staying sound as Nadal suffered a career-ending injury and Charlatan headed to the sidelines.

It’s unknowable whether Authentic would have earned the roses in the spring, but his performance makes him a proper winner of a non-traditional Derby.