By Mike Farrell
We all crave a return to normalcy, squinting to spy the light at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic tunnel.
For racing fans, Kentucky Derby (G1) weekend offered a positive glimmer. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good.
Derby weekend was contested where it belonged on the calendar, a welcome return after last year’s Labor Day-weekend aberration.
There were 51,838 fans back at Churchill Downs on Saturday, about one-third the size of the usual throng. Yes, the admission gates are finally reopening at many racetracks.
The Louisville weather was spectacular all weekend, and much of the racing was top notch.
All in all, the signs are increasingly positive as we move on to the Preakness (G1) in two weeks, right on time in its traditional spot on the stakes schedule.
It’s back to normal, and it feels good.
In what’s become the new normal in these abnormal times is another Derby win for trainer Bob Baffert.
Medina Spirit held on to give the Hall of Fame conditioner his record-shattering seventh Derby victory, the second in a row following Authentic last September.
Even Baffert seemed stunned by this one.
“I was coming in here, thinking, I wasn’t sure if Medina Spirit could win the Derby, everything had to go perfect for him,” said Baffert on Sunday morning. “We were going to go to the lead and see what happened. What if they challenged him? He made the lead pretty easily, for him, and the other speed horse didn’t break (Rock Your World). That’s what it’s like in the Derby: You have to get the trip; the other speed horse didn’t get the trip.”
It was one of the more forgettable renewals of the “Run for the Roses.” Medina Spirit and jockey John Velazquez dictated the pace, defying 18 rivals to come and get them. All failed, most notably the previously undefeated Essential Quality and Rock Your World.
Medina Spirit turned in a gutsy effort. Johnny V rode the perfect tactical race. Beyond that, there’s not much to say about that contest.
At best the third string 3-year-old in the Baffert arsenal behind Life Is Good and Concert Tour, Medina Spirit showed up when it counted to win the world’s greatest race.
Now the show moves to Pimlico for the Preakness.
“Can he win the Triple Crown? I don’t know. But he’s the Derby winner, and that’s all that matters,” said Baffert. “He came out of it well. 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 right now.”
Baffert also has Concert Tour in mind for the Preakness following a 5-furlong drill in 1:00.60 on Sunday morning at Churchill. The decision on the winner of the San Vincente Stakes (G2) and the Rebel (G2) winner hinges on a conversation with owner Gary West.
“He wants that horse to develop and we’re not rushing things,” said Baffert. “We know he’s a good horse, so we’ll see next week how he is. The thing is how they’re training. They both would have to be training well.”
Trainer Brad Cox didn’t commit either Mandaloun (2nd in the Derby) or Essential Quality (4th as the favorite) to the Preakness and seemed inclined to split them. Mandaloun was more likely to head to Baltimore with Essential Quality resting up for the Belmont Stakes (G1) in five weeks.
Third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie is heading back to California to train for the Belmont, according to trainer Doug O’Neill.
Don’t look for any members of Todd Pletcher’s Derby quartet — Known Agenda, Sainthood, Bourbonic and Dynamic One — to run in the Preakness.
“That’s not my MO,” Pletcher said. “We’ll get back to New York and regroup. Then we can think about some major decisions with those horses.”
The Belmont is the more likely goal and Pletcher might have an ace-in-the-hole for the 1 ½-mile conclusion of the Triple Crown: Oaks winner Malathaat.
“We’re not sure about that one yet,” Pletcher said. “She’s a special filly and appears quite capable of running the distance. At some point this year she’s likely to take on the boys, but we’re still not sure where or when that might be.”
A little history is in order. Pletcher captured the 2007 Belmont with Oaks winner Rags to Riches who prevailed in an epic battle with Curlin.
And who is Malathaat’s sire? None other than Curlin.
Destiny might be written in the bloodlines.
Of course, there are always “new shooters” who skip the Derby and show up for the Preakness. In addition to Concert Tour, that contingent could include Caddo River, Crowded Trade, King Fury, Rombauer, The Reds, and Unbridled Honor.
Mike Smith is known as “Big Money Mike” for his ability to be the veteran steady hand in the saddle for racing’s biggest moments.
Smith is absolutely dedicated to remaining in peak mental and physical condition, but time waits for no one and Smith turns 56 in August.
We’re not suggesting Smith be fitted for the retirement rocking chair, and he will no doubt score more stakes victories down the road.
However, the tide seems to have turned and John Velazquez is now racing’s big-money jockey. He has now won consecutive Derbies and captured the Kentucky Oaks (G1) on Friday aboard Malathaat for the first riding Oaks–Derby double since Calvin Borel in 2009.
Velazquez has won four of the last 11 runnings of the Derby, and three of the last five. Only Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, with five each, have won it more times.
At 49, Velazquez is a relative pup compared to Smith. This is clearly his time, with super-agent Ron Anderson putting him in the right spots at the right time to grab that big money.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.