Bob Baffert pulled up to Barn 33 on the Churchill Downs backstretch May 2, disappeared into the shedrow briefly, then emerged before the waiting media with his latest Kentucky Derby (G1) winner on the end of a lead shank.
From there, the Hall of Fame trainer went through an exercise that has to be muscle memory for him – show off said classic winner for masses, answer questions about how he keeps pulling these triumphs off, try and keep the proper perspective where both he and observers are concerned.
“We won’t know that until he goes through it,” Baffert said when asked if Medina Spirit, upset victor of the 147thedition of the first leg of the Triple Crown, has what it takes to sweep the American classics. “But he’s the Derby winner, and that’s all that matters.”
Given the tempered expectations Medina Spirit carried into the first Saturday in May, Baffert is happy to field queries on how high the ceiling is where Zedan Racing Stable’s colt is concerned. The morning after holding off Mandaloun by half a length to capture the Kentucky Derby at odds of 12-1, Medina Spirit was reported to be in good order with a planned venture to Baltimore for the May 15 Preakness Stakes (G1) next on his agenda.
“He came back and he’s handling it quite well. He wasn’t as tired as I thought he might be,” said Baffert, who notched a record-setting seventh Derby win when Medina Spirit wired the field on Saturday evening. “It takes about a week to determine, so I’m going to come back next weekend and see. But I don’t see anything discouraging (from going to the Preakness) right now.”
Of the seven Baffert trainees that have earned the garland of roses, Medina Spirit is the one who had his conditioner in the most genuine state of shock in the aftermath. It wasn’t so much that the dark bay runner looked wildly outclassed on paper, it was more that he didn’t bring the same proven ability to Louisville that most of Baffert’s prior Derby winners have had.
What Medina Spirit did have was consistency – never finishing worse than second in his five starts leading up to yesterday’s test – an auspicious post from which to get early forward position, and a stubborn streak when it comes to letting others pass him. With a mastermind in Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez at the helm, Medina Spirit won a large portion of his battle Saturday when he was able to get away clean from post 8 and settle into a high-cruising rhythm down the backstretch.
“Going down the backside, he was doing it easy, you could tell he was enjoying himself,” Baffert said. “His ears were forward. And turning for home, they came for him, and he just dug in. I didn’t know if he was going to do it. He just dug in and fought hard and ran sort of the same race that he did at Santa Anita when he won the (Grade 3) Robert B. Lewis. They came to him, and he fended them all off.
“When they turned for home, I was still not convinced,” Baffert continued. “We didn’t start screaming and yelling until about the sixteenth pole, when it looked like it was do-able. We all went nuts. It felt like my first Derby ever.”
Barring a setback, Baffert will head to Baltimore seeking his eighth Preakness victory and the only time he has lost the 1 3/16-miles test when arriving with the Derby winner in tow came last year with eventual Horse of the Year Authentic. The 2020 edition of the Maryland classic was held one month after the “Run for the Roses” instead of its usual two-week wheelback, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic shifting the Triple Crown schedule.
That extended time between races last year was one Baffert didn’t relish as few can get their horses to thrive during that quick time frame like he can, a nod to his Quarter Horse roots. Still, a fair bit of competition is expected to see if Medina Spirit has another step forward in him in a couple week.
Trainer Brad Cox reported that both Mandaloun and juvenile male champion Essential Quality were well after finishing second and fourth, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby and that he would be game to give each a Preakness chance should they continue to show no ill effects from Saturday’s outing.
“I have a desire (to go to the Preakness) if I feel like my horses are doing really well,” Cox said. “I have to base it off that. Maybe even train them through the weekend and let them tell you where they are. We have to come up with a game plan over the next week or so.”
Proud as Cox was to see his first two career Kentucky Derby starters finish in the top four, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer was far from satisfied with that outcome especially after learning that Essential Quality traveled 68 feet further than Medina Spirit during the race, according to Trakus, after getting bumped at the start.
“Not taking anything away from the top three horses but (Essential Quality) was the best horse yesterday,” Cox said. “Some people may not agree with that, but I think he was the best horse yesterday. He ran a huge race, very proud of his effort, but you give up 68 feet and you do the math. That’s a good bit. Bottom line is he was fourth best at 1 ¼ miles yesterday, he lost a lot of ground around both turns.
“I didn’t think anyone wanted to win the Derby as bad as me and I want to win it a lot more today than I did yesterday.”
Baffert himself may provide additional competition for Medina Spirit as stablemate Concert Tour is under consideration for the Preakness. The son of Street Sense, who most recently finished third as the favorite in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, worked five furlongs in 1:00.60 at Churchill Downs Sunday morning.
“Concert Tour worked well this morning, I’ll sit down and talk to (owner) Gary West,” Baffert said. “He wants that horse to develop and we’re not rushing things. We know he’s a good horse, so we’ll see next week how he is.”
Hot Rod Charlie, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, was reported to physically fine after missing by a length and is set to head back to his Southern California base Tuesday, according to his trainer, Doug O’Neill.
“We’ll look to run him next in the Belmont Stakes (June 5 at New York’s Belmont Park),” O’Neill said. “We’ll get him back to California and start planning for that.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher said Sunday morning that his Derby quartet all came out of their efforts no worse for the wear and that they’d be headed back to his New York headquarters at Belmont Park on Monday. Known Agenda (9th), Sainthood (11th), Bourbonic (13th), and Dynamic One (18th) failed to make much dent in the 19-horse Kentucky Derby lineup and none are expected to move on to Baltimore.
“That’s not my MO,” Pletcher stated. “We’ll get back to New York and regroup. Then we can think about some major decisions with those horses.”
Rock Your World, who defeated Medina Spirit in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby (G1), is set to fly back to California on Tuesday after finishing 17th in the Kentucky Derby for trainer John Sadler. The colt had his Derby chances compromised when he was squeezed from both sides out of the 15 hole and forced to fall far back in the big field.
“We had no chance after that,” Sadler noted Sunday morning. “We’ll get him home and regroup,” Sadler stated. “At this point I don’t know what we’re going to do with him. But we’ll come up with a plan.”
Trainer Mark Casse reported Sunday that Soup and Sandwich, who was eased in the Kentucky Derby after pressing the early pace, displaced his soft palate during the race but was otherwise in good order.
“It happens a lot of times with young horses especially if they haven’t run a whole lot,” Casse said. “It’s a nerve thing…but then it corrects itself quickly. (Jockey) Tyler (Gaffalione) recognized it and took care of him.”