LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The most unusual Kentucky Derby produced the most usual result.
Bob Baffert won another Derby. That's six for the now legendary trainer, tying Calumet Farm's Ben A. Jones (1938-52) atop the leaderboard. Authentic got the job done. Jockey John Velazquez executed a perfect wire-to-wire ride, holding off, then separating from favorite Tiz the Law to win No. 146.
It was a crazy Derby. Baffert's other entry, Thousand Words, reared up wildly in the paddock, toppling assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes, who likely needs eight screws to repair his broken wrist. The horse was automatically scratched. Thirty minutes later, the victorious Authentic practiced his own form of social distancing, clearing out the winner's circle, bowling over Baffert and Spendthrift Farm president Eric Gustavson in the process.
"The most surreal day of my life," Gustavson described it later.
But it wasn't really the Derby. Not the Kentucky Derby. Not the one we know and love. Churchill Downs was a facility without fans, its grandstand nearly empty. No hats. No mint juleps. No red carpet. No Millionaires Row. No ridiculous costumes or drunk patrons. On the 50th anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson's famous essay "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and the Depraved," sadly this Derby was neither.
"It's just been such a weird year," said Baffert afterward, including himself in the equation. The trainer was "the most loaded I've ever been" for a Derby. Nadal. Charlatan. Authentic. Thousand Words. Cezanne. Uncle Chuck. All contenders. Then Nadal and Charlatan were shelved by injuries. Cezanne and Uncle Chuck proved too green. Along the way, Baffert was hit with a 15-day suspension -- under appeal -- for a drug violation at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs involving Charlatan and the filly Gamine.
"It's tough on me. It's tough on my wife, Jill. The ups and downs we had," Baffert said Saturday. "In May, we had four -- I had four. I had all these horses. We'd go to Oaklawn, Charlatan. We've got Nadal. They looked like unbeatable. I had four horses ready to roll. And just things happen."
By post time, Baffert was down to his last shot: Authentic, second in the Santa Anita Derby and first in the Haskell. And he had Velazquez, a 48-year-old magician who, like the trainer, can squeeze the best from his mount when the moment demands nothing but the best.
"I never rode him before," Velazquez said Saturday. "I let him know that I was comfortable on him and he showed. Now we go from here."
The Oct. 3 Preakness is next. There's no Triple Crown on the line -- Tiz the Law won the Belmont, the first leg in this crazy coronavirus year, on June 20 -- but Baffert indicated Sunday he is likely to ship both Authentic and Thousand Words to Baltimore. Though Barclay Tagg, Tiz the Law's trainer, voiced his preference to skip the Preakness, his boss, Jack Knowlton of Sackatoga Stables, might have other ideas.
"It's a classic race and you don't get the chance to run in the classic races every year," Knowlton said of the Preakness.
Meanwhile, the Breeders' Cup is Nov. 6-7 at Keeneland. Who knows what our coronavrius world looks like then. Originally hoping to allow 23,000 fans on Derby Day, Churchill Downs was ultimately forced to lock the gates. No on-track wagering, plus a 15-horse field instead of the usual 20, crushed the bottom line. All-sources wagering on the Derby day program totaled $126 million, down from $250.9 million last year. Only $79.4 million was bet on the race itself, down from $165.5 million in 2019.
"I want the old America back," said Baffert, meaning a united America, but he could have just as easily been talking about everything else.
The hope is by November the pandemic will have somehow turned around. Keeneland will be able to welcome fans for a great Breeders' Cup Classic with two great Thoroughbreds, Authentic and Tiz the Law, going head-to-head again. There would be no better way to kiss an awful year goodbye.