Authentic delivers big moment for Toffey

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Ned Toffey was smiling. Really. Photos from the aftermath of Authentic’s Kentucky Derby victory might show otherwise, but Toffey – general manager of the colt’s co-owner Spendthrift Farm – is having none of it.

“First things first, from the time I can remember, since I was in high school or maybe even before, people have always said to me, ‘How come you’re not smiling?’ ” Toffey said this week when asked about his stoic expression while accepting the spoils after America’s most important Thoroughbred race. “That’s me. I’ve always done that. I was thrilled. I was smiling on the inside.”

And he still is.

Toffey started at Spendthrift in 2004, the year B. Wayne Hughes bought the historic Kentucky farm, and had spent seven years prior to that working with Hughes as the broodmare manager at Three Chimneys Farm. Winning a Derby for Hughes . . . the farm . . . in September instead of May . . . with no spectators in attendance . . . during a global health crisis . . . after watching Spendthrift entrant Thousand Words flip in the paddock and be scratched with a potential head injury . . . well, all of that . . . made it a moment.

Authentic withstood a challenge from favorite Tiz The Law at the top of the stretch and won by 1 1/4 lengths to improve to 4-for-5 for trainer Bob Baffert and an ownership group including Spendthrift, Starlight Racing, My Racehorse Stable and Madaket Stable. 

Hughes wasn’t there, opting to preside over a small party at the farm, and left Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in September to others. Toffey and farm president Eric Gustavson represented Spendthrift in the winner’s circle and when it came time for officials to hand out the Derby trophy there stood Toffey.

“For me, standing up there, it was really very surreal – the whole thing was – but when they put the trophy in my hands first and the shape of that trophy . . . as long as I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen that trophy,” he said. “The shape and the color and everything of that trophy is very much seared in my brain. To suddenly have that in your hand and be looking at it was a powerful moment. It was really pretty cool.”

And a long way from Toffey’s introduction to racing at his hometown track Great Barrington Fair in Massachusetts. Held on a fairgrounds dating to the 1800s, the tiny track was part of the Massachusetts fair circuit and a fixture for New England racing fans from 1940-83 with a few stops and starts in the 1990s. Nicknamed “the Belmont of the Berkshires” for its picturesque setting, Great Barrington was also famous for race-fixing and oddball occurrences like an 18-year-old runner in 1979 and the exploits of Carlos “King of the Fairs” Figueroa who won five races in eight days with the same horse in the 1960s. The half-mile track once drew more than 27,000 spectators. Last year, there was rumor – a little more than rumor actually – of a return but for now Great Barrington’s racing days remain a memory.

And the hook a Massachusetts kid needed to find a path to a racing career. For whatever reason, Toffey gravitated to the sport. He remembers watching Dust Commander win the 1970 Derby, and pestered school librarians to find anything about racing to read (Sports Illustrated frequently did the trick). Toffey was 10 when Secretariat won the Triple Crown (“If that doesn’t capture your imagination, nothing will.”). He and his father went to Saratoga in 1974, the day Secretariat was hurriedly inducted into the Hall of Fame and has the photo with Penny Chenery to prove it. Toffey rode some old geldings, took riding lessons (“hated them”) and went trail riding (“loved it”).

Still, after graduating from the Berkshire School – where his father taught English and was the dean of faculty – and attending the University of Massachusetts, Toffey was headed to some other career. He’d played tight end for two years at UMass, gotten a sports management degree and was on his way in the world – only he wasn’t quite finished with racing thanks in part to roommate/teammate Paul Manganaro, whose family was involved in racing.

“That kind of brought be back to it a little bit,” said Toffey, who took a job with New York’s Kinderhill Farm after graduation. It was supposed to be temporary.

“I thought it would be a fun job while I looked for a real job,” he said. “A year later I threw everything in my truck, drove to Lexington and stayed.”

Toffey started at Brookdale Farm, and called it the chance of a lifetime even if he moved on to Dixiana, Three Chimneys and now Spendthrift.

“I don’t think I was ever paid less or enjoyed a job more,” Toffey said of the Seitz family’s Brookdale Farm in Versailles. “I loved working there. I got a chance to learn a lot. That name carried a lot of weight and helped me in so many ways.”

Fred Seitz laughed at Toffey’s description of the job, but remembered his former employee.

“He was probably shaking stalls and rattling buckets as the saying goes,” Seitz said. “It’s not a big enough farm, or wasn’t certainly then to be specifically assigned to one barn or one job. Ned would have been with yearlings during prep time, and with mares at that time of the year. He made the rounds, that’s still somewhat what we do.”

Brookdale is a frequent client of Spendthrift’s and sold Thousand Words to the team as a yearling at Keeneland September in 2018.

“He’s really flourished and grown with that job,” Seitz said of Toffey. “We do business with him all the time. It was fun to watch him at the Derby. He didn’t know what to do with that trophy. He was shell-shocked, I think.”

Nah, he was smiling.

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So what was it like to watch Authentic win the Derby, in September, after Thousand Words was scratched in the paddock?

“You pride yourself in saying that these things happen, you take them in stride and do what’s right by the horse and hopefully they reward you for it some other time. That was severely put to the test when that happened. I was standing right there and couldn’t really tell how hard he hit his head. Once you see that the horse is OK, you start thinking about other things. Bob (Baffert) handed me the saddle towel and I heard that he was a scratch on the walkie-talkies. You know it’s the right thing, but you’re just so frustrated. You want to cuss and scream and throw something.

At this point, Toffey compared the scene to the Seinfeld episode where Elaine was stuck on the subway . . .

“It put me a funk. I had the thought in the paddock, ‘Would it be too much to ask for Authentic to win this thing after all this?’ I was in a funk all the way until about the quarter pole. Then I was thinking, ‘The son of a gun, he’s going to do it.’

“Even if I wasn’t connected it’s a race I’d like to watch and replay. Everybody said he couldn’t get that distance, but when that horse came to him he just responded. His competitive juices kicked in and he said, ‘You’re not going by.’ I have a lot of respect for Tiz The Law and I told a lot of friends that that horse will have to stub his toe for anybody to beat him and I’m glad I was wrong. You have to say Tiz The Law showed up, and Authentic answered it. He didn’t have it all his own way. He got that trip, but he had to be talented enough to make that trip happen.”