In an abnormal year, Breeders' Cup offers a bit of normalcy

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Kentucky Derby winner Authentic is taken for a workout at the Breeders' Cup World Championship horse races at Keeneland Race Course Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Lexington, Ky. Authentic is scheduled to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic race Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

LEXINGTON, Ky. – This year’s Triple Crown slate unfolded over 3½ months instead of six weeks and shuffled the marquee Kentucky Derby from its traditional first Saturday in May to Labor Day weekend — as the middle jewel.

Numerous tracks canceled meets and some returned with abbreviated schedules. Many cards went off without the noise of spectators, demonstrating the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on horse racing that continues to this day.

While it has made for a strange year and compacted path to this weekend’s $31 million Breeders’ Cup world championships at Keeneland, the 14 races running Friday and Saturday at the picturesque track provides some normalcy after a season of upheaval.

“It’s certainly getting back to normal in a feel way,” trainer Ken McPeek said this week. “It’ll be exciting to get fans back in. I know that a lot of them miss it, but I also know that a lot of them are watching real close. The sport’s done a good job staying out there in the limelight to some extent.”

High-quality competition helps and once again could determine the Eclipse Award favorites as the year’s best in several divisions. Saturday’s marquee $6 million Classic highlights the depth with a rematch between Belmont Stakes champ Tiz the Law and Derby winner Authentic, the Bob Baffert-trained pupil who went wire to wire and beat the race favorite by 1 1/4 lengths at Churchill Downs.

And yet, both 3-year-olds are listed as betting choices below veterans and Baffert stablemates Improbable (5-2) and Maximum Security (7-2), who crossed the finish line first in last year’s Derby before becoming the first in 145 years to be disqualified for interference.

Not a bad way to enter the 10-horse Classic with a reigning Derby winner, a 3-year-old champion (Maximum Security) who has six wins and two seconds since that controversy, and another colt on a three-race winning streak.

“I’ve never been this strong before in the Classic,” Baffert said. “Usually, I’d be happy to have just one of those in the Classic. To have three is pretty amazing.”