June 17, 2021

Preakness Report: Medina Spirit brings Baffert factor to Baltimore

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

Medina Spirit delivered Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert a record seventh Kentucky Derby victory, gamely leading wire-to-wire at Churchill Downs. After being overlooked as the 12-1 sixth choice, the Florida-bred colt should be favored in the May 15 Preakness at Pimlico.

Baffert’s track record bodes well for his chances. His first five Kentucky Derby winners – Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem, American Pharoah, and Justify – came back to win the Preakness on two-week rest. After taking the 2002 Kentucky Derby at 20-1 odds, War Emblem won the Preakness as the 5-2 favorite.

The pandemic affected the 2020 Triple Crown schedule, resulting in the Preakness being held four weeks after the Kentucky Derby in early October, and Baffert’s Kentucky Derby-Preakness streak came to an end when Authentic finished a close second.

He remains five-for-five with Kentucky Derby winners on the two-week turnaround. Baffert has also captured the Preakness with Point Given (2001) and Lookin at Lucky (2010) following losses at Churchill. His Kentucky Derby horses run big in the middle leg of the Triple Crown.

The winningest trainer in Triple Crown history (17 combined victories), Baffert will also send Concert Tour to the 2021 Preakness.

Heady ride puts determination on display

Runner-up in his final two prep races, Medina Spirit has never finished worse than second from six career starts (3-3-0).

His consistency was easy to appreciate entering the Kentucky Derby, but the dark bay had not shown the ability to pass horses. Both of his previous wins – a December maiden special weight at Los Alamitos and the Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) at Santa Anita in late January – were accomplished in frontrunning fashion, and pundits weren’t projecting Medina Spirit as the Kentucky Derby pacesetter.

Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez proved to be a difference-maker. The now four-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey outgunned counterparts to the fore, and Medina Spirit held at least a half-length advantage through the opening three-quarters of a mile.

After coming under serious pressure on the far turn and through the stretch, Medina Spirit resolutely prevailed by a half-length. Runner-up Mandaloun and third-placer Hot Rod Charlie had every chance through the final furlong, but Medina Spirit kept finding more all the way to the wire.

Baffert and Velazquez became the first trainer/jockey combination to win back-to-back editions since Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte (Riva Ridge/Secretariat) in the early 1970s.

Derby preparation

When it comes to preparing Kentucky Derby contenders, Baffert does things differently than trainers based east of Mississippi. His methods are open for all to see, and Baffert has won four of the last seven runnings.

His overall Kentucky Derby record is 35-7-3-3, a 20% win and 37% in-the-money rate.

Baffert puts fast, long-distance workouts into his Kentucky Derby runners. He builds fitness for the 1 1/4-mile distance by working his pupils hard. Baffert’s horses are not shipping to Churchill Downs after breezing four or five furlongs.

In 2018, Justify logged seven furlongs (1:25 1/5) in his final pre-Kentucky Derby workout. Every other trainer in the field worked their horses either four or five furlongs.

In 2020, Authentic worked a mile (1:38 3/5) and six furlongs (1:12 2/5) before arriving in Louisville. Every trainer based in Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, and New York utilized four or five-furlong moves before losing.

Medina Spirit blitzed six furlongs in 1:12 1/5 on April 22. In three of his final six drills, he posted the fastest six-furlong workout of the day at Santa Anita.

The only other horse in Saturday’s field to record at least a six-furlong move in the final workout, Hot Rod Charlie, is also based in California. His trainer, two-time Kentucky Derby winner Doug O’Neill, made sure to leave no stone unchecked before facing Baffert on the first Saturday in May.

By comparison, Steve Asmussen, Todd Pletcher, and Mark Casse had multiple runners in Saturday’s field. The well-respected conditioners are now a combined two-for-92 in the Kentucky Derby.

Trainers on the East Coast and Midwest simply refuse to employ the same tactics in this era.

There’s an argument to be made that Baffert’s training strategy not only prepare his runners for the extreme 1 1/4-mile task of the Kentucky Derby, it enables his horses to carry their form forward in the Preakness two weeks later.

The methodology seems so simple, and owners can see exactly how Baffert builds his horses up for the Kentucky Derby through strenuous workouts, but I remain skeptical that trainers based outside of California will be willing to adapt next year.

Preakness challengers

With new speed expected, Medina Spirit probably will have to change tactics in the Preakness.

Rebel S. (G2) winner Concert Tour, who was removed from Kentucky Derby consideration after finishing third at odds-on in the Arkansas Derby (G1), will add plenty of pace. Caddo River also figures to be mixing it up on the front end after missing the Kentucky Derby due to a fever.

Crowded Trade and Rombauer, third respectively in the Wood Memorial (G2) and Blue Grass S. (G2), are two more new shooters of interest among the early probables.

Mandaloun, who got little out of his final prep race when recording a dull sixth in the Louisiana Derby (G2), will be a top rival after coming up a little bit short at Churchill. Midnight Bourbon (sixth) and Keepmeinmind (seventh) could also be back from the Kentucky Derby field.

Medina Spirit netted his first triple-digit Brisnet Speed rating (101) in the Kentucky Derby, but his numbers will be on par with several challengers in the Preakness.