Medina Spirts holds off Mandaloun to win the 147th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021. Churchill Downs/Coady Photograhy.

Pleasant Surprise: Medina Spirit Gives Baffert 7th Kentucky Derby Victory

By Alicia Hughes

One would think after reading the same script over and over and over again – six times previously to be exact – there would cease to be any element of surprise when reaching the story’s conclusion. 

It is a tale, after all, the racing industry knows by heart at this point: Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert showing up to the first leg of the Triple Crown and treating what is supposed to be most arduous race in the sport like his personal playground for showcasing the level of talent within his shedrow. So, when the prose yet again played out word for word, for the second consecutive year and a record-setting seventh time in his career on May 1, shock was the last emotion one would have pegged Baffert to be overcome with.

Credit Zedan Racing Stables’ Medina Spirit for doing the seemingly impossible by leaving his conditioner genuinely stunned to be engaging in the celebratory routine he can do in his sleep. After days of downplaying his colt’s chances, of highlighting others when asked who had come to the 147th Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) with the best horse, Baffert – of all people – conceded he had misread how impactful his own protégé could be when asked to make the statement of his career.

The world may still be inching its way back to so-called normally as it continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, but the Thoroughbred racing community is already back to same old, same old where its signature test is concerned. Nearly eight months after Baffert saddled Authentic to a frontrunning triumph in the 2020 Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit decided to reenact that outing, heading every point of call and fending off a brave challenge from Mandaloun in late stretch to capture the “Run for the Roses” by a half length at odds of 12-1.

“He showed me today, hey, Bob, I’m a lot better than you think I am,” the legendary trainer quipped as he digested the fact he had just broken a tie with Ben Jones for most Derby victories. “And he’s a hell of a lot better than I thought he was.”

Were he trained by most anyone else, Medina Spirit probably wouldn’t have been the afterthought he was heading into Saturday’s 10-furlong classic. The son of Protonico had flashed class in winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita Park on Jan. 30 – besting eventual Louisiana Derby (G2) Hot Rod Charlie in the process – and had not been worse than second in his five starts before heading to Louisville. 

When you reside in a barn that cranks out champions and Triple Crown race winners like an assembly line, however, it can be hard to stand out if you’re not jumping emphatically into full view. And after getting bested by stablemate Life Is Good in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) and finishing 4 ½ lengths behind the John Sadler-trained Rock Your World in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby (G1), Medina Spirit didn’t exactly have Baffert sauntering into the Bluegrass State confident that a blanket of roses was in his future. 

It was an unfamiliar spot for the white-haired trainer who has sent the likes of Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) out to run roughshod over their classmates during their time in Kentucky. So, he decided to embrace his rare underdog role this week, enjoying a pressure-free lead up to the Derby while mentally preparing himself to be pleasantly surprised with an on-the-board result. 

“Usually when I come in here, I feel like if I don’t win ‑‑ I bring in these heavy‑duty horses,” Baffert said. “This year I really enjoyed myself. I came in here under the radar. I thought, well, maybe he’ll get a piece of it or something. But (jockey) Johnny (Velazquez), he kept telling me if he improves off his last race, he’ll run well.

“It’s one of those things where it’s just ‑‑ it was a thrilling win. And for this little horse, what he did today, he has got so much of Silver Charm in him, just a fighter. He put him on the lead and he was going along easy. And those horses came to him. I kept waiting for all those horses to pass him, you know? When they turned for home, I go, well…”

He may not have the glamour pedigree to lean or prior top-level success to call upon, but Medina Spirit did have some familiar ammo in his corner as he set out from post 8 in the 19-horse field on Saturday. 

His Hall of Fame pilot Velazquez owned three prior Derby victories, including his triumph on Authentic, and few in the game can match the 49-year-old rider to this day when it comes to delivering in pressure cooker moments. Having already guided Malathaat to victory 24 hours earlier in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1), Velazquez put together another masterclass beneath the Twin Spires when he hustled Medina Spirit to the front of the pack first-time by the stands without any of the expected staunch challengers for the lead going with him.

“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,” said Velazquez, who became the eighth rider to win the Kentucky Oaks and Derby in the same year and first since Calvin Borel pulled off the feat in 2009. “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, especially the way he breaks out of the gate. 

“I know all the horses in the race. I only thought the one horse that was faster than me (Rock Your World). But he was outside today. And it worked out good. The first time we go past the wire, I look outside, he’s not there.”

As Medina Spirit led the field through fractions of :23.09, :46.70 while under mild pressure from Soup and Sandwich, Mandaloun tracked along in third with race favorite Essential Quality traveling on the outside path in sixth after bumping at the start with Rock Your World – who himself ended up well back in tenth.

Approaching the far turn, Hot Rod Charlie began an advance while Essential Quality mounted a bid four-wide. When Mandaloun appeared to get on even terms with Medina Spirit at the head of the lane, Baffert figured he was right to think this wasn’t the year for him to add to his historic Derby total.

But as Hot Rod Charlie joined the challenge three wide and Essential Quality came with his own bid further out, Medina Spirit continued to counterpunch along the inside en route to covering the distance in 2:01.02 over a track rated fast.

“I think I got more tired than he did,” Velazquez said. “He was fighting. He was fighting for every bit of everything I asked him to do. I was so proud of him, because we got to the 1/16 pole and he keep putting the ears down and keep fighting. I was not afraid.”

Juddmonte’s Mandaloun, who came into the race off a disappointing sixth-place finish as the favorite in the Louisiana Derby, validated the strength of his recent morning workouts with his runner-up effort, finishing a half length ahead of Hot Rod Charlie in third with juvenile champion Essential Quality another head back in fourth.

In the aftermath of the race, trainer Brad Cox – who conditions both Mandaloun and Essential Quality – found himself balancing the emotions of placing two horses in the top four in his first time sending starters out in the Kentucky Derby with the angst of watching them fall just short.

“I thought we had two good shots, and we did. We knew all week we had two good shots,” Cox said. “We were right where we wanted to be turning for home. Essential Quality started leaning out a little bit and maybe it cost him. (Jockey) Luis (Saez) felt he would have gotten there if he had been a little more focused on going forward as opposed to leaning. 

“(Mandaloun) ran hard, I really thought he was going to get by for a minute. He just got a little tired late. But we’re proud of both of them….and we’ll be back. I promise.”

Bred in Florida by Gail Rice and purchased for just $35,000 out of the 2020 OBS July 2-year-olds in training sale, Medina Spirit improves his record to three wins from six starts with $2,175,200 in earnings. He returned $26.20, $12 and $7.60 with Mandaloun returning $23 and $13.40 with Hot Rod Charlie paying $5.20 to show. 

“This is really surreal. I really just can’t believe it,” said owner Amr Zedan. “I knew he had a heart that’s bigger than his body. And all we needed is for him to be up front and just keep fighting because no one was going to pass Medina if Medina really got the lead.

On the way into the stretch, I just couldn’t see anything. It just went gray, and all of a sudden everybody is jumping on top of me. I don’t know. It was emotional. It was surreal. It was just amazing.”

Most amazing of all, given his trainer’s history, was how unexpected Medina Spirit’s effort was to the man who has made such kind performances routine.  

“This is one of the biggest Derby wins,” Baffert said. “This is the only Derby I came in here thinking, I just don’t know if we got the goods. We know he’s solid, he’s good, and he’s tough. But everything’s going to have to go really well to get it done. He got it done.”