Churchill Downs nearly turned into Planet Of The Horses on Saturday.
Thousand Words reared up in the paddock and fell on his side, sending Jimmy Barnes, Bob Baffert’s faithful assistant, into an ambulance with a broken arm.
His stablemate Authentic then held off Tiz The Law, the 4-to-5 favorite, to win, thereby sending the betting public into a ticket-tearing funk. Of the 14 horses on the card at the time, only one favorite had won.
Then they placed the garland of roses on Authentic in the winner’s circle, and the red ribbons hung low enough to wrap around one of his legs, and the horse went on a rampage and decked Baffert and Ned Toffey, general manager of Spendthrift Farm.
So much for peace and quiet on Derby Day, and the salutary effect on jittery colts.
And so much for a Triple Crown and whether or not to decorate it with an asterisk, since Tiz The Law had won the equivalent of a seven-inning Belmont Stakes.
Anyway, the day will not be remembered as the near-fulfillment of a PETA fever dream, but as confirmation for two of horse racing’s human murals.
Baffert won his sixth Derby, tying Ben Jones at the top of the list.
Jockey John Velasquez, 48, won his third Derby, after Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Always Dreaming in 2017. He also won his 300th Grade 1 stakes.
Amd there were at least 4,600 other winners, spread from coast to coast. Under a program sponsored by MyRacehorse.com and blessed by B. Wayne Hughes, 87, the Spendthrift Farms owner and the USC super-donor, anyone could grab a share of Authentic for $206.
Among those who indulged were ski champ Bode Miller, Dodgers righthander and Lexington, Ky. native Walker Buehler, rapper Tjuan Benafactor, and actor Dean Winters.
“The Mayhem guy,” said Michael Behrens, the former Casper Mattress executive who brought MyRacehorse.com to life.
“Mr. Hughes is so enthusiastic about this because he says this sport is better than the NFL,” Behrens said. “We just have to let people know. We have 50 horses in the program right now. Too many times we make it difficult to come into this sport from the outside. What we’re trying to do is democratize ownership.”
All Baffert was trying to do was find a piece of gold at the end of a dehydrated stream.
He started the year with an All-Star team of 3-year-olds: Charlatan, Nadal, Thousand Words, Authentic, later Uncle Chuck. They dropped out of the parade, one by one, and Baffert was suspended for 15 days in Arkansas when Charlatan and the filly Gamine came up positive for lidocaine, an action that Baffert is appealing.
Authentic was the pick of the litter at first, but he had been a May foal and Baffert let him languish when horse racing was on hiatus. Then Honor A.P. streaked past Authentic in the Santa Anita Derby.
“I was out-trainered by John Shirrefs,” Baffert said.
Baffert shelved Authentic and hoped the colt would chill out. He installed earplugs, and Mike Smith rode Authentic to a close win in the Haskell, over NY Traffic.
“Mike kept chirping at him and he didn’t respond,” Baffert said. “MIke didn’t know he had earplugs. If he had known, Johnny might not have gotten to ride him today.”
Baffert and Velasquez hatched their plans over dinner at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse in downtown Louisville. Authentic would take the lead if available but wouldn’t exhaust himself to get it, and Velasquez would use lefthand whipping to keep him from getting distracted and veering inside.
“And he told me to save him for that last eighth of a mile,” Velasquez said.
It all came together, thanks to a slamdance at the gate that sent Honor A.P. to the rear.
With Thousand Words also gone, Velasquez watched Tiz The Law approach him, and saw jockey Manny Franco look back.
“I said, come and get me,” Velsaquez said. Tiz The Law tried but could not.
“The trip was perfect,” Franco said. “I have no excuses. The other horse just ran so hard.”
Baffert was already gathering his own emotional wreckage when Authentic sent him to the turf.
“I was just worried about my coat,” he said.
He also said, “I really thought Tiz The Law would pass us. You come here, you just want to make sure you have a chance at the end. I would have been happy with second. To win this, it feels like my first Derby.”
As long as Baffert remembers that the winner’s circle is now part of the horse’s planet, it might not be his last.