John Velazquez climbed aboard Authentic on Saturday afternoon with confidence as well as determination to make a vision come true. His mother-in-law told him she had a good feeling about the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. He and his colt, she told him, were going to win a race that had eluded him 19 times before.
Velazquez is a Hall of Famer. In September, he won his third Kentucky Derby with Authentic. And sure, he wanted to add America’s richest race and the marquee event of horse racing’s season-ending championships to his résumé.
But that is not what took his breath away after he crossed the finish line nearly three lengths ahead of Improbable. Instead, he was thinking about Joan O’Brien, the mother of his wife, Leona. The O’Briens are racetrackers — Leo O’Brien was a longtime trainer on the New York circuit — and know their horses. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Joan O’Brien has been grinding through chemotherapy to treat cancer and keeping up both a smile and her hopes.
“She told me she had a feeling,” Velazquez said. “She has a great attitude. She inspired me to do this. With everything that has gone on and the problems with the family, getting to ride a horse like this is a gift from God.”
Velazquez and Authentic’s victory provided a rare grace note in a downbeat year for one of America’s oldest sports. In the spring, more than 30 people — trainers, veterinarians and others — were indicted on charges, brought by federal prosecutors, of doping horses. On Friday, in fact, prosecutors won additional indictments against two trainers at the center of the investigation: Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro.
It didn’t help on Saturday that Maximum Security, one of the horses involved in the doping cases, was in the Classic field. The horse, who crossed the finish line first in last year’s Kentucky Derby, was disqualified 22 minutes later when racing officials decided he had interfered with rivals.
This time, Maximum Security was in the barn of Bob Baffert, also the trainer of Authentic. Baffert has gained the enmity of rivals who see him as a cheater, their suspicions fueled by the 29 drug tests his horses failed over four decades, including four in the past six months.
The cases took months, if not years, to adjudicate and resulted mostly in modest fines or brief suspensions, as Baffert asserted he had done nothing wrong and blamed the results on environmental contamination or human error. Once more, horse racing’s leaders must defend a culture in which performance-enhancing and painkilling drugs, combined with lax state regulations, undermine the credibility of the sport and threaten the well-being of the animals who define it.
Earlier in the week, facing mounting criticism, Baffert pledged to be more vigilant.
“I am very aware of the several incidents this year concerning my horses and the impact it has had on my family, horse racing and me,” Baffert said in a statement. “I want to have a positive influence on the sport of horse racing. Horses have been my life and I owe everything to them and the tremendous sport in which I have been so fortunate to be involved.”
For Velazquez, Saturday was the 18th time that he had visited the winner’s circle after a Breeders’ Cup race. It was also the most important victory of a long, distinguished career.
“The older I get, the more emotional I get,” Velazquez said. “It worked out perfect. Bob said to take him to the lead so he doesn’t wander so much and keep his mind on running. It worked out. He did everything I wanted him to do.”
Authentic did everything that Joan O’Brien had envisioned a colt, and her son-in-law, would.