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The way trainer Bob Baffert tells it, if Kentucky Derby winner Authentic wins the 145th running of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, he’ll have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Never mind the shortened version of the Belmont Stakes that was run in late June. There is a new Triple Crown, in his opinion, at least for this year.
“The Breeders’ Cup [Classic], is the third leg,” Baffert said of the $7-million race Nov. 7. “But we got to get by here first.”
By virtue of Authentic’s upset win a month ago, the 3-year-old colt is the 9-5 favorite to win Saturday’s race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Baffert also has Thousand Words (6-1) in the race. He was supposed to run in the Derby but reared up and fell on his side while being saddled and was an automatic scratch.
Missing from Preakness will be Tiz The Law, winner of the Belmont and second-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby. Added to the Preakness are Art Collector (5-2), undefeated this year, and Swiss Skydiver (6-1), a filly who finished second to Art Collector in the Blue Grass Stakes.
“Art Collector, I think he’s a very good horse,” Baffert said. “I always worry about the horses I haven’t beaten yet.”
Baffert hasn’t had to worry much when he’s brought the Kentucky Derby winner to the Preakness. In the five times he has done it, he has won every time. It started with Silver Charm (1997) and was followed by Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002) and Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018). He also won the race twice without the Derby winner and, if he wins Saturday, will hold the record with eight victories.
“The reason I've won it so many times is I've always had the best horse,” Baffert said. “That's why I won. I've won the Derby with the best horse and I've lost the Derby with the best horse. I think about the losses more, the ones that got away from me. The Preaknesses have never gotten away when I'm here with the best horse.”
By all accounts, Authentic is the best horse at Pimlico.
“I’ve never come in here before with a month to get him ready,” Baffert said. “But I can see a big difference. To me, he’s getting better. He’s getting stronger. … He’s really starting to fill out now, and I think he looks better now than he did before the Kentucky Derby.”
Authentic might not have been mature enough to have won the Kentucky Derby if it had been run in May.
“Yeah, he benefited a lot,” Baffert said. “He was always a pretty good horse. He was ranked No. 1 and then Nadal came around and then Charlatan came around and he was No. 3.”
Nadal was injured and retired, and Charlatan suffered a less severe injury, with plans to bring him back.
People started to doubt Authentic after his win in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell Invitational at Monmouth. He had a big lead in mid-stretch but seemed to lose interest and was almost caught by Ny Traffic. Many thought Authentic wasn’t suited for the 1¼-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby.
But what was lost was what happened in the moments after the Haskell ended.
“People that were at the race commented how when Ny Traffic got to him at the finish line, it was actually after the finish line that Authentic kind of rebroke,” said Ned Toffey, general manager of Spendthrift Farm, part-owner of both Authentic and Thousand Words. “He got competitive and never really let the horse pass him.
“I think he’s going to respond to the competition, and you certainly really saw him respond when Tiz the Law came [near him in] the stretch [at the Kentucky Derby]. Hopefully we’ll see more of that on Saturday.”
One thing you won’t see Saturday is fans.
“[Being at] the Kentucky Derby, it didn’t feel like the Derby,” Baffert said “But when that gate came open it felt like the Derby. When that gate comes open it will feel like the Preakness. All you hope for is that your horse shows up and when they turn for home you have something to root for. That’s all you can ask for.”
The relaxed nature of the Preakness makes it Baffert’s favorite Triple Crown race. All the stakes horses are in the same barn area, and the crush of people who normally make the Kentucky Derby unnavigable are gone.
There is also a tradition known as the Alibi Breakfast, where owners, trainers and pretty much anybody who can wangle an invitation show up on Thursday morning to swap exaggerated tales and make promises they can never keep. There is also an endless buffet of crab cakes, fried chicken and anything that can be made with an egg.
“I miss that breakfast,” Baffert said. “I like that fried chicken. I’m not sure I can win a Preakness without the fried chicken. I’ll have to find some.”
Talk about an implausible alibi.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.