By Richard Rosenblatt
After 42 prep races at 19 racetracks in 10 states over nearly one year, it’s finally time to zero in on the Kentucky Derby.
What a long, strange trip it’s been on the road to the 2020 Run for the Roses.
In just under three weeks, Saturday, Sept. 5, mighty Tiz the Law will headline a slew of 3-year-olds (likely not a full field of 20) when the gates spring open at Churchill Downs.
And in this topsy-turvy year which has seen the Triple Crown — racing’s most coveted prize – forced to switch around the order of the races due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Derby is now the second instead of the first leg. Tiz the Law won the Belmont Stakes on June 20; the first, rather than traditional final leg, and the Preakness (G1) is the final leg, set for Oct. 3.
Through it all, no horse has been better than Tiz the Law. The New York-bred owned by Sackatoga Stable and trained by Barclay Tagg should be the prohibitive favorite Derby no matter who shows up in Louisville. Blue Grass (G2) and Ellis Park Derby winner Art Collector is a likely second choice. After that, a trio of California-based colts – five-time Derby winner Bob Baffert’s Authentic (Haskell winner) and Thousand Words (Shared Belief winner), and the John Shirreffs-trained Honor A.P. (Santa Anita Derby winner), should be next when the morning line is announced during Derby week.
The Derby points standings were completed on Saturday, when favorite Pneumatic won the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park. Trained by Steve Asmussen, the colt earned 20 Derby points and is No. 11 on the leaderboard. The Pegasus was among more than a half-dozen races Churchill Downs added to the list of qualifiers as the reshuffling of events due to COVID-19 delayed the Derby four months.
Tiz the Law, ridden by Manny Franco, is atop the leaderboard with 372 points, and is 4-for-4 this year – the Holy Bull (G3), Florida Derby (G1), Belmont Stakes (G1) and Travers (G1). A formidable record, with overpowering victories in his most recent races, has him at the head of the class.
Art Collector, handled by little-known-outside-the-Midwest trainer Tommy Drury, could be the surprise star: Like Tiz the Law, this colt is 4-0 in 2020; with a pair of allowance-optional claiming wins, a victory in the Blue Grass (G2) followed by a win in the Ellis Park Derby. He is No. 3 on the leaderboard with 150 points, and will be ridden by Brian Hernandez, Jr.
And what would a Derby be without Baffert? In question is whether the 1 ¼-mile Derby distance is too far for Authentic – he barely hung on to win the 1 1/8-mile Haskell by a nose over Ny Traffic; and was second to Honor A.P. in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby, beaten 2 ¾ lengths.
Thousand Words stepped up by beating Honor A.P. in the 1 1/16-mile Shared Belief, but has a shaky resume that includes three wins to open his career (Los Alamitos Futurity, Robert B. Lewis among them), but followed with a fourth in the San Felipe (G2), 11th in the Oaklawn Stakes, and second in the Los Alamitos Derby (G3).
Just a few months ago, Baffert was loaded for the Derby. Now, his Arkansas Derby division winners, unbeatens Charlatan and Nadal, are both sidelined with ailments. (Charlatan was disqualified from his win in the Arkansas Derby for a positive of an overage of the medication lidocaine.)
However, Baffert also has one of the top fillies for the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks (G1) in Gamine, who will take on Alabama (G1) winner Swiss Skydiver in what could be the start of a beautiful rivalry.
Back to the 146th Derby. Due to health and safety concerns, attendance will be less than 23,000, according to Churchill Downs (less than 14 percent of the record crowd of 170,513 in 2015). Strict protocols will be followed by spectators as well as participants – trainers, owners, jockeys, grooms, and backstretch workers.
With recent rules set by Churchill Downs for jockeys to participate, several top riders opted out of the Derby. Among those who won’t be in the Derby are top riders Irad Ortiz, Jr., brother Jose Ortiz, Joel Rosario and Luis Saez, who finished first in the 2019 Derby aboard Maximum Security (the horse was DQ’d to 17th for interference).
With that, here’s the rest of the Derby horses who earned enough points to run – whether they do or not will be known over the next few weeks:
Honor A.P. will have Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith aboard. Even with his runner-up finish in the Shared Belief, this colt will be among the betting favorites off his pedigree and a record of two wins and three seconds in five career races.
King Guillermo, last seen running second to Nadal in a division of the Arkansas Derby on May 2, showed he’s in good form with a 5-furlong work in 59.40 seconds at Churchill on Saturday. He’ll be ridden by Samy Camacho.
“He really likes it in Kentucky,” King Guillermo’s exercise rider Edgar Medina said after the work. “Since we got here, he keeps doing better and better. Who knows what the future can hold for him?”
Dr Post, trained by two-time Derby winner Todd Pletcher, earned his Derby trip with a runner-up effort in the Belmont and a third in the Haskell. He is No. 8 on leaderboard with 80 points.
“We’ll check in with the owners and figure out a game plan,” Pletcher said. “The Derby is in play for sure. We’re happy with the way he’s going, so we’ll see how the next couple of weeks go.”
Max Player, third in the Travers, will be saddled by Steve Asmussen as regular trainer Linda Rice will remain in New York (Saratoga); Caracaro, second in the Travers, is Derby bound and Hall of Famer Javier Castellano is expected to be aboard.
Others in top 20 on the leaderboard are Pneumatic, Enforceable, the filly Swiss Skydiver (likely to run in the Oaks, per trainer Kenny McPeek), Rushie, Major Fed, 2-year-old champion Storm the Court, Attachment Rate, Sole Volante, Finnick the Fierce, and Winning Impression.
Let the countdown to Derby Day begin!
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.