Sept. 5 (UPI) — The 146th Kentucky Derby certainly is the strangest ever and, in many respects, one to forget. But if the overwhelming favorite, Tiz the Law, runs to his notices early Saturday evening, he will make the race one to remember.
In a “normal” year, Derby Day is the biggest day of the year, not just for Churchill Downs, but for the city of Louisville and the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky. Not 2020.
First, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a four-months delay and canceled most of the week-long civic revelry normally surrounding the Run for the Roses.
Then track officials tried every which way to get approval to allow even a small fraction of the usual 150,000 fans to attend the race. All those efforts came to naught.
A brand-new, specially built 20-stall starting gate was delivered early this year to eliminate the need for an awkward auxiliary gate. But as contenders fell by the wayside, it became clear there wouldn’t be 20 3-year-olds to put into the apparatus on race day, anyway.
The latest to defect was a one-eyed gelding named Finnick the Fierce — withdrawn Friday because of veterinary concerns, even though his trainer said the horse is just fine.
Reports of planned demonstrations by Black Lives Matter activists concerned some owners and trainers. And questions were raised even about the century-old tradition of playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses take the track for the Run for the Roses.
But for all that, the show must go on. And as it does, the spotlight is firmly on Tiz the Law, a New York-bred colt by Constitution. He is owned by Sackatoga Stable, which campaigned Funny Cide to victory in the 2003 Derby and is trained by 82-year-old Barclay Tagg.
Tiz the Law has won six of his seven starts. In his last outing, he was an easy winner in the Belmont Stakes. A victory Saturday would position him to vie for the Triple Crown in next month’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
Normally, the Triple Crown series starts with the Derby, progresses through the Preakness and ends with the Belmont. Not in this pandemic-scrambled year.
Still, a Triple Crown is a Triple Crown, no matter how its jewels are arranged. And a sweep of those races would set up Tiz the Law for a so-called “Grand Slam” if he could add the Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 7 at Keeneland.
Only American Pharoah in 2015 has swept those four races and he completed the task at Keeneland.
Tagg fretted early in Derby week as a rain-soaked track prevented him from giving Tiz the Law the kind of maintenance work he wanted. The skies cleared by Thursday, and Friday morning’s gallop was more to the trainer’s liking.
“He had a very nice gallop,” Tagg said. “Right speed. Everything was comfortable. He pulled up nicely and came back nicely. We’re all good.”
Tiz the Law drew post position No. 17 — a number that has never won the Derby. Because the field is not full, Churchill Downs officials will leave the inside gate and the three outside gates open, so Tiz the Law actually will start from the 16th stall.
Despite the wide draw, Tagg said he hopes jockey Manny Franco can get Tiz the Law going quickly the first time down the backstretch.
“I’d like for us to be laying third all the way around until we get down for business,” Tagg said. “I’m very confident in our horse. He’s a very nice colt. I hope he wins it. He’s a good horse. Good horses do good things.”
The second and third favorites on the Derby morning line, Honor A.P. and Authentic, also visited the track early Friday.
Authentic’s trainer, Bob Baffert, is looking for a record-tying sixth Derby win and said jockey John Velazquez will have to keep busy on the colt, who almost blew a big lead in winning the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park in his last start.
“He’s the kind of horse where he looks around, like, in the stretch,” Baffert said of Authentic. “I told Johnny if we’re lucky and we turn for home and he’s right there, you have to keep him busy because he does check things out.”
But, he added, “When you get to this level, they all look good.”