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Billy Reed: Strange Derby is over; maybe next year can be normal; Baffert sets record with Authentic

All you horse-racing fans who have been waiting to exhale no longer have to hold your breaths. On a lovely late-summer day at Churchill Downs, the 146th Kentucky Derby was run without a hitch before a “crowd” of around 200. Nobody was beaten and nothing was set on fire. The protesters outside the track grounds were mostly peaceful.

In fact, the only guy who got knocked down was Bob Baffert, who trained the winning Authentic. But it had nothing to do with protests. His own colt butted him. It was Baffert’s record-tying sixth Derby win and the first time a victorious trainer had been knocked down in the Derby winner’s circle.

On NBC right after the race, Baffert was more emotional than usual. No clowning around. In fact, he almost was moved to tears – not for Authentic, who went wire-to-wire in the very good time of 2:00 61 under jockey John Velasquez, but for Thousand Words, his other Derby hopeful.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

In the paddock before the race, Thousand Words fiipped over, breaking one of longtime assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes’ arms. So as the 15-horse field was being loaded into the starting gate, Barnes was being loaded into an ambulance headed for a hospital.

“I told John (Velasquez) in the paddock, I said, “Do it for Jimmy” He added, “I wish he was here with me.”

The protestors were determined to use the Derby’s spotlight to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, a Louisville resident who was shot and killed when police burst into her apartment on a no-knock warrant.

That triggered several protests and marches in downtown Louisville, some of which include violence, burning and looting. The three policemen involved in the fatal shooting still have not been charged with anything, a source of burning unrest among those demanding justice for Taylor.

Some of the protesters wanted the Derby canceled in Taylor’s honor. When track management politely refused, the leader of at least one protest movement vowed to stop the Derby. That’s when horse-racing fans began to suck in their breaths.

It was easily the strangest Derby since Aristides won the first one in 1875.

Besides the concerns about the protestors, the Derby’s normal crowd of 150,000 or more was reduced to around 200 because of the Coronavirus epidemic. These 200 either owned some horses running on the Derby card, or they had a spouse who was an owner, trainer, or jockey.

The Kentucky Derby

Bless their hearts, they tried their best to add a. touch of Derby frivolity to the ancient track. Many of the women wore wide-brimmed Derby hats and fascinators. The men tried to look Derby-spiffy in loud sport coats and jaunty hats.

But many fans felt disoriented. The Derby is supposed to be on the first Saturday in May, not the first Saturday in September. The crowd should be 150,000 or more, not 200. (Gov. Andy Beshear wasn’t even there.) The Derby is supposed to be a party, not a wake. Think of all those mint juleps that went unconsumed.

Authentic’s victory means there will be no Triple Crown winner this year. The order of the three races – Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes – had to be shifted because of the epidemic. So the Belmont was run first and the Derby second. The Preakness is scheduled for Oct. 3 at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

The Belmont winner, Tiz the Law, was made the 4 to 5 favorite yesterday. When he made his move in the turn for home, he charged up to Authentic and even put his nose in front for a few strides. But Authentic had a lot left because Velasquez was able to relax him on the lead through the backstretch. So it was Authentic who pulled away, leaving Tiz the Law to finish second, beaten 1¼ lengths.

“Baffert’s hard to beat,” said Barclay Tagg, the trainer of Tiz the Law. “It’s a horse race. What can you do?”

The biggest surprise was Mr. Big News, a longshot who made a huge move to finish third. In the old days, when Churchill had the biggest and best pressbox in the nation, the assembled scribes gathered there would surely bet on Mr. Big News.

And so, mercifully, the 146th Derby now is in the record books. Let’s only hope that No. 147 is held next year on the first Saturday in May, where it belongs.

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