LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It's finally here, although not as we know it. The Kentucky Derby will be run for the 146th time Saturday at historic Churchill Downs, its shape and form tainted by a four-month postponement, an ongoing coronavirus pandemic, widespread social unrest, and the disappointment of tens of thousands of would-be revelers being told not to bother coming.
Indeed, this will be a Run for the Roses unlike any before – while also being one to harken back to the greats of the game. Equine legends such as Spectacular Bid (1979) and Seattle Slew (1977) were the most recent odds-on choices to win the Derby, and a heavy favorite with an unprecedented record for a Derby starter will be looking to pull through for the multitudes of offtrack bettors punching his number into their advanced-deposit wagering accounts.
Tiz the Law, a New York-bred, is the 3-5 morning-line favorite in a field of 16 in a Derby that will be run at 1 1/4 miles before a mostly empty grandstand and clubhouse. The colt's emphatic victories in the June 20 Belmont Stakes and Aug. 8 Runhappy Travers in this skewed season are the main reasons he'll be the first odds-on Derby favorite since Arazi faded to eighth at 9-10 in the 1992 running. Victory at a short mutuel would place Tiz the Law on threshold of becoming racing's 14th Triple Crown winner, with only the Oct. 3 Preakness at Pimlico left to go.
Barclay Tagg trains Tiz the Law, a bay Constitution colt with a flashy blaze, for the Sackatoga Stable of Jack Knowlton and partners. The team is familiar with Derby delirium, having won the 2003 running with the New York-bred gelding Funny Cide. They're confident of winning a second one, if only Tiz the Law keeps performing as he has.
Tiz the Law has used a stalking style to great effectiveness, rating patiently for jockey Manny Franco before putting his dazzling speed on display. Tagg is hoping for something similar once the Derby gates open shortly after 7 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.
"This horse just does what you ask him to do," he said. "He's strong and he's on the muscle right now."
A win by Tiz the Law would make Tagg, 82, the oldest trainer to win a Derby. Art Sherman was 77 when California Chrome won in 2014.
Tiz the Law and Franco will break from post 17 and be surrounded by the other two program favorites, Honor A. P. (post 16, 5-1) and the speedy Authentic (post 18, 8-1), both in from California. Only one other from the 14 runners inside of the favorites is listed as low as 15-1. That is another California horse, Thousand Words (post 10), who with Authentic will be looking to land their Hall of Fame conditioner, Bob Baffert, into a tie for most Derby wins by a trainer (six) with the great Ben Jones. All others in the Derby field are 20-1 or higher on the morning line, including eight 50-1 shots, none of whom seem to have much chance to win.
The trail to this Derby has been long and eventful. As the trainer of red-hot prospects Nadal and Charlatan, Baffert actually stood the best chance to win Derby 146 if it had been run on its original May 2 date, but both of those colts eventually were sidelined by injury. As the spring and summer unfolded and Tiz the Law strengthened his grip on the top spot of the 3-year-old division, a number of would-be challengers also emerged, most notably Art Collector, but he, too, was declared from contention earlier this week with a minor injury.
Unfortunately, a couple of 11th-hour defections came Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, respectively, when King Guillermo and Finnick the Fierce were scratched.
Trainer Juan Carlos Avila said early Thursday that King Guillermo, owned by retired Major League Baseball slugger Victor Martinez, had come up with "a little problem" and later announced on Twitter that King Guillermo was being withdrawn after developing a fever on Wednesday afternoon. Avila indicated the Preakness will remain under consideration if the colt recovers swiftly.
Finnick the Fierce was withdrawn at about 10 a.m. Friday by trainer Rey Hernandez, with the reason still yet to be divulged.
Meanwhile, Baffert is looking for Authentic to show his customary quicks under John Velazquez after being the last horse loaded into a new, custom-made 20-stall starting gate that Churchill acquired to render obsolete its former two-gate system. With the two late scratches, gates 1, 2, 19, and 20 will be left empty.
Authentic held on for a narrow win in the July 18 Haskell at Monmouth Park over Ny Traffic in the final Derby prep for both colts. Both maintained steady breeze schedules prior to arriving here early this week from opposite coasts.
"I've really seen a big difference in Authentic since his Haskell win," Baffert said. "He's maturing now. He shipped a lot better than he did going to the Haskell. He's probably my best chance, but he is going to have to break well from that post."
Thousand Words slumped badly in the spring before rounding back to form, winning his final prep in a mild upset of Honor A. P. in the Shared Belief five weeks ago at Del Mar.
"He's steady, and the mile and a quarter is not going to be a problem," Baffert said.
"I don't feel like this is my Derby to lose. I can win it, but things have to go right. And that's what the Derby is all about. You've got to have a lot of luck."
It is Honor A. P. who is being given the best chance to keep Tiz the Law from a Triple Crown bid. The Honor Code colt is represented by the team of trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith, who teamed to win the 2005 Derby with 50-1 shot Giacomo.
"He's really coming into this very well," Shirreffs said. "I'm very happy with him."
Honor A. P. came to full prominence by winning the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby on June 6. His midpack style may have been compromised by the small field and shorter 1 1/16-mile distance of the Shared Belief, and Shirreffs is hoping swift early fractions in the Derby will play into Smith's hands.
Among the longshots, maybe Max Player, Major Fed, or Attachment Rate could help blow up the exotics. All have shown a willingness to close late, especially if the pace gets too hot.
The purse for the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby is $3 million. This is the first time since 2003 that fewer than the 20-horse maximum was entered.
With spectators barred because of the pandemic, maybe a few thousand people still will be on hand Saturday instead of the usual 150,000 or so, with owners, trainers, track employees, invited media, and other "essential personnel" admitted. They're likely to see protesters outside the track gates following promises by various social-justice leaders to demonstrate.
The Derby is carded as the last of 14 Saturday races. First post is set for 11 a.m. Eastern, with the Derby scheduled for 7:01 p.m. NBC will provide extensive television coverage starting at 2:30.
_ additional reporting by Nicole Russo
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