June 15, 2021

Medina Spirit guts out record seventh Kentucky Derby win for Baffert

Medina Spirit, with John Velazquez up, wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs (Photography by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires)

Move over, Ben, and make room for Bob.

On a day when he set a new record for most North American Grade 1 wins by a trainer,  Bob Baffert set a record of even greater distinction on Saturday when Medina Spirit provided the Hall of Fame conditioner with his seventh victory in the Kentucky Derby (G1), breaking a tie with the former master of Calumet Farm, “Plain Ben” Jones, which had stood eight months since Authentic’s victory last September in the pandemic-postponed Derby of 2020.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” said Baffert, whose Derby wins prior to Authentic came with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015), and Justify (2018). “I’m so spoiled bringing these heavy duty horses in here, but this little horse has such a big heart.”

It was the fourth Derby victory for jockey John Velazquez, who also rode Authentic, and prior to that Animal Kingdom (2011) and Always Dreaming (2017).

Though never worse than second in five previous starts, Medina Spirit was not judged one of Baffert’s strongest Derby candidates of late, at least compared to some of his recent winners. Only War Emblem among the previous six started at odds higher than Medina Spirit’s 12-1, which made him the sixth choice in Saturday’s field of 19.

Medina Spirit entered the classic off two consecutive losses at Santa Anita, an eight-length setback to sidelined stablemate Life Is Good in the San Felipe (G2), and a 4 1/4-length defeat to Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). The latter was expected to show speed in this Kentucky Derby but virtually lost all chance at the start, bumping with race favorite Essential Quality, and was forced to play catch-up from there.

Assuming the lead, then, was Medina Spirit. Chased by Soup and Sandwich, Medina Spirit set a spirited pace of :23.09, :46.70, and 1:11.21. Not far behind those two were Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie, both of whom saved ground much of the way, and Essential Quality, who worked out a wide trip down the backside in sixth.

“Strategy was very simple: break out of there and try to put him in the lead. If somebody wanted to go him faster than me, let him have it,” Velazquez said. “I know we were quick. And the more I looked at the race, the more I studied the race, I knew he was faster than the rest of the horses.”

Approaching the quarter pole, which Medina Spirit reached in 1:35.98, Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and Essential Quality all made their moves into contention. Entering the stretch, the quartet were lined up across the track, and it was soon apparent the race would come down to those four.

Through the long stretch, Medina Spirit hung tenaciously to the lead, with Mandaloun taking the most serious run, getting within a head at the eighth pole. Farther out on the track, Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality loomed menacingly, but as the wire got closer, neither of them were able to gain appreciable ground on the top pair. In the end, Medina Spirit completed his wire-to-wire triumph by a half-length.

“If you have him on the lead he’ll fight,” Baffert said. “When those horses came to him, I can not believe he won this race. That little horse, that was him. He’s all guts.”

Medina Spirit, with John Velazquez up, wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs (Photography by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires)

Owned by Zedan Racing Stables, Medina Spirit paid $26.20 after completing 1 1/4 miles over a fast track in 2:01.62. Mandaloun was second by a half-length over Hot Rod Charlie, with Essential Quality, who started at odds of 5-2, a head behind in fourth.

The order of finish was rounded out by O Besos, Midnight Bourbon, Keepmeinmind, Helium, Known Agenda, Highly Motivated, Sainthood, Like the King, Bourbonic, Hidden Stash, Brooklyn Strong, Super Stock, Rock Your World, Dynamic One, and Soup and Sandwich. King Fury spiked a temperature on Friday and was scratched.

Originally sold for a mere $1,000 as an OBS January short yearling, Medina Spirit was acquired for Zedan by agent Gary Young at the OBS Summer juvenile sale. Even then, the son of Protonico proved a bargain buy at $35,000. He’s now bankrolled $2,175,200.

A three-length winner of his debut last December, at Los Alamitos over 5 1/2 furlongs, Medina Spirit proved himself a promising classic hope in his next start, the Jan. 2 Sham (G3) at Santa Anita over a mile, where he put a late scare into Life Is Good. That heavy favorite, who showed immaturity through the stretch, lasted by three parts of a length over Medina Spirit.

Medina Spirit showed guts in the 1 1/16-mile Robert B. Lewis (G3) four weeks later, leading all the way and winning a three-way photo with Roman Centurion and Hot Rod Charlie by a neck. Next came his aforementioned losses in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby by convincing margins.

“I was a little disappointed in his last race,” Baffert said. “He didn’t run well, but he came in here and trained well.”

Medina Spirit is the seventh Florida-bred winner of the Derby, a list that includes Baffert’s first winner Silver Charm. Bred by Gail Rice, he was produced by Mongolia Changa, a daughter of Brilliant Speed. The most significant performer in the last four generations of the colt’s female family was multiple Grade 1 winner High Yield, who ran 15th in the 2000 Kentucky Derby.

Baffert has been tied with 19th-century trainer R. Wyndham Walden for most wins in Preakness (G1) history — seven — since 2018. Whether another Triple Crown race record will fall to Baffert will be decided in two weeks at Pimlico, with the help of the little horse that could.