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You could have handicapped it.
Aided and abetted by NBC Sports, Churchill Downs shape-shifted its 146th Kentucky Derby in the service of turning its back on the modern world.
The good news is that any discussion vis a vis Triple Crown and asterisks is now dead.
As for the particulars, Authentic (8-1), a horse trainer Bob Baffert ID'd way back in the beginning, broke adequately from the far outside post, right next to the 7-10 favorite Tiz the Law, and worked hard to get the lead by the time they got to the clubhouse turn.
A model of consistency, Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who won his third Derby and 200th Grade I race, parceled Authentic's speed and effort throughout. He had never sat on the horse's back even once before Saturday. Now, they were controlling the race, in the lead.
But Tiz the Law loomed. Getting his dance steps in order on the turn, Tiz' drew almost nose to nose immediately into the stretch, which only seemed to aggravate Authentic, who pushed his lead to a neck. It was over. Manny Franco worked hard to keep a tired Tiz the Law in a straight line and Authentic drew off to win by 1-1/4 lengths.
Baffert's sixth Derby win tied him with the legendary Ben Jones, who trained Whirlaway, Citation and many others for the iconic Calumet Farm.
There was drama before and after the race, cycloned around Baffert.
His other runner, Thousand Words, got spooked in the paddock as he was being saddled, reared up on his hind legs and fell over. His body cushioned most of the fall, but he did hit his head on the grass edging. The vet immediately scratched him. Baffert's assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes fell and broke his arm in the ruckus.
After the races, with Authentic and way too many people gathering in the winners circle, the horse got agitated and spun around, perhaps looking for an out. Trying to get away from the horse's right hindquarter Baffert backpedaled and his posterior was planted in the turf. Both horses and Baffert are alright.
I kept my vow and did not wager one dollar at Churchill on either Oaks or Derby Day. I did make Derby picks and would have had the winner. Saturday, I played Saratoga and cashed in every race I bet, making a modest profit on the day. Churchill Downs Inc. did take a major hit in all-sources wagering. Betting on both Oaks and Derby days were down nearly by half from last year.
The racing was generally very good both days, with decent payouts. Shedaresthedevil, at 15-1, upset favorites Gamine and Swiss Skydiver in the Oaks. She set a new record for the race.
Musings from the couch, in no particular order.
* Churchill Downs Inc. began in earnest its nod to social conditions Friday afternoon with a press release that was a sequence of self-flagellation, appreciation for black jockeys who had been effectively banned for many decades, and a promise to "do better." No specific plans or programs were announced.
"We are committed to taking real, concrete action to address institutional roadblocks to progress and playing our part in advancing the changes America so desperately needs." Um, OK. The last graf of the release implied that Churchill might cancel presentation of the Stephen Foster song "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!"
"The atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby will be different this year as we respond to those calls for change. This will be a Derby unlike any other. As it should be." After a moment of silence, Churchill's bugler played the song as the post parade began.
* When it comes to horse racing coverage, NBC and especially Mike Tirico have GOT to go.
Kudos to Eddie Olczyk, Kenny Rice, Britney Eurton, Laffit Pincay III, and former jockey Donna Brothers on horseback. They're fine. With a better script, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey and analyst Randy Moss could be better. But alpha sports guy Tirico, with only some knowledge of racing, brings it all down like the guy who can't hold up the pole in the circus tent. If he's ever made a bet on a race, we don't know it.
NBC has always had a "top sports guy" who pops up at almost all the events it televises. At least when it was Little Bobby Costas he would come on and say, "I know next to nothing about horse racing" or "this rain is REALLY coming down" and stay out of the way. Oh for the days of Kenny Mayne on ESPN, who knew the game and extolled the big scores and bad beats. He's been there.
Maybe Tirico is only doing what he's told, but his job seems to be to introduce video segments, which were the same both days, and promo NBC shows. He kept asking Bailey and Moss the same questions, mainly, who do you like in the Derby, and it became Tiz the Law ad infinitum. "Tiz the Law is your favorite." "Who might beat Tiz the Law?" He failed to point out how a few other horses were taking money, and that if Tiz' gets beat, there's a lot of value on the board.
The real reveal came when they started gearing up the hype on a Houston-Kansas City football game. When J.J. Watt Skyped in, Tirico's eyes popped out, he stood up straighter, and machine-gunned with Watt all the delicacies of such a game. He looked like a kid in Goodell's Candy and Toy Shoppe. Immediately after, he and NBC used the fact one Derby horse was named South Bend to do a big plug for the Notre Dame football game. Tirico clearly loves football.
* NBC reneged on its promise to cover fully the protests outside a Churchill Downs so fortified it made Fort Knox look vulnerable.
It had a piece pre-recorded with file footage of Louisville protests over the last months. NBC's news division reporter did her stand-up from inside the Churchill fence, with a slew of armored vehicles behind her. She never went to the protesters live to help viewers get a feel for what was happening.
You had the track grounds with a big fence around it. A street. Same fencing on the other side of the street. Both sides of the street using police vehicles as another barrier. The best NBC could muster was sending up a drone to show protesters peacefully marching outside all that fencing.
* With the race imminent, the moment for "My Old Kentucky Home" arrived. The PA announcer said how Frederick Douglass approved of the song, and then called for a moment of silence to "recognize the inequities that many in our country face." What they basically said is "maybe things will get better." Like I said, Churchill has some great statement writers.
* After the race, Tirico spoke of Tiz the Law's connections' "disappointment that there will be no Triple Crown for Tiz the Law." Mike, even with the bogus Crown this would have been, nobody talks about it until you win the first two. Tirico betrayed his narrow perspective by constantly harping on the Triple Crown! Everybody talked about this horse like he's a lock in a walkover. Signing off: "No Triple Crown this year." Sheesh.
* Promising an analysis of the race afterwards, sponsored by Guaranteed Rate, all they showed was the break from the gate, not even Authentic getting the lead, and then showing the stretch run. Howzabout Authentic dictating the race all the way on the backside?
Whenever somebody calls himself "a storyteller," it's a sharp pain.
Layden did a decent feature on the disqualification of Maximum Security in last year's Derby, giving Country House the roses. It showed that it was a good call then and remains a good call. But then Layden implied passively aggressively that some other horse should have been elevated to first, because Country House "clunked up for second and was never going to win. The best horse did not win because that's the way we adjudicate races in this country." Country House, who escaped most of the scrum, did finish second. Layden implied that one of the five horses Maximum Security nearly wiped out should have been elevated. Who?
Then he weighed in on the comments from Tiz the Law's trainer Barclay Tagg last week about the "rioters" in Louisville. "I don't know what these guys are gonna do, these rioters. Who knows? All I know is you're not allowed to shoot them and they're allowed to shoot you, that's what it looks like to me," Tagg said.
* Layden said he wants his interviewees to be "candid and open and honest" with him. "To say what Barclay Tagg said in September of 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky, the home of Breonna Taylor, the home of Muhammad Ali, a city that has been on edge for months, that was at best tone deaf and at worst irresponsible and really could put lives at risk."
Tell us Tagg, who said what he believes, revealed himself and said a bad thing, but don't self-appoint the power to monitor comments and then authoritatively predict the consequences.
* Rutledge Wood, the resident jovial hipster, was hosting a Derby party at his house, somewhere down south, and was also throwing remotes to similar parties around the country. There seemed to be fewer masks than there should have been, even at the buffets. Aren't buffets a no-no with the COVID-19?
* Ray Daniels, a Black co-owner of Necker Island, made a short, inspired statement as he was interviewed on the walk from the barns to the paddock. Kenny Rice tried to cut him short, but was unsuccessful.
"I am thinking about the significance (of this) wholeheartedly. I just want the world to know that we support the protesters. Black lives, the Black Lives Matter movement, we support Breonna Taylor's seeking of justice, her family. A wise man told me this morning, we cannot pick protest versus progress. For us, this is progress. We want to promote both. We got in this with the goal of opening this up to more African-American ownership groups."
* When everybody on the NBC crew except Wood (Thousand Words), picked Tiz the Law to win, I knew he was toast. Pincay had him romping. Afterwards, some wondered if the Travers, also 10 furlongs, took too much out of him. I say no. Franco geared him down in the final sixteenth. But I do think it's possible the Churchill surface itself may have tired him out.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
A diminished Pegasus opens the new horse racing season amidst a giant orange background.Continue reading "TrackNotes: The Phantom Zone" »
Posted on Jan 22, 2021