By Richard Rosenblatt
Bob Baffert once again made horse racing history Saturday when the Hall of Fame trainer won a record seventh Kentucky Derby (G1) as Medina Spirit won the Run for the Roses at sun-splashed Churchill Downs.
Sent off as a 12-1 longshot with previously unbeaten Essential Quality the favorite in the field of 19, Medina Spirit took the lead early and fought back all challenges, with Mandaloun second, Hot Rod Charlie third and Essential Quality fourth – all four just over a length apart.
Although Mandaloun, trained by Brad Cox, briefly took a lead in the stretch, Medina Spirit regained the advantage and won by a half-length as Hall of Famer jockey John Velazquez won his fourth Derby – all in the past 11 years.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,’’ said Baffert, who has won his seven Derbies in a 25-year span. “I’m so spoiled bringing these heavy-duty horses in here that I tell you that this little horse has a got such a big heart.”
Medina Spirit ($26.20 for a $2 win bet) was purchased as a yearling for $1,000 at the 2019 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company Winter Mixed Sale. The bay colt was then purchased for $35,000 in the 2020 OBS Sale by bloodstock agent Gary Young and is owned by is owned by Saudi Arabian businessman Amr F. Zedan’s Zedan Racing Stables.
“I was really surprised when he got an easy lead and I kept waiting for these horses to come to him,’’ said Baffert, who teamed with Velazquez to win the 2020 Derby with Authentic (held on Sept. 5 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). “But Johnny had him in a perfect spot and when you have him on the lead he’ll fight. When those horses came to him, I could not believe he won this race.”
Baffert came into the 147th Derby under the radar after his two top Derby prospects, Life Is Good and Concert Tour, were taken out of consideration. That left him with third-stringer Medina Spirit, who was more used to running second than first, as he did in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and the San Felipe (G2).
But he turned the tables on everyone with a strong run down the stretch, never giving in, and covering the 1 ¼ miles in 2:01.02.
Medina Spirit broke sharply from the No. 8 post as 5-2 favorite Essential Quality and 4-1 second choice Rock Your World bumped shortly after the start which slowed down the pace.
Medina Spirit led the field through fractions of 23.09, 46.70, and 1:11.21 while under mild pressure from Soup and Sandwich (26-1), with Mandaloun (26-1) tracking in third. At the head of the stretch, Medina Spirit had a short lead, with Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality set to challenge.
Mandaloun, Cox’s other Derby horse along with Essential Quality, stuck his head in front for an instant, but Medina Spirit quickly regained the advantage.
“Every time I asked him to give more he kept fighting on,’’ said Velazquez. “You couldn’t ask for more of a horse. When you ride a horse like this who is competitive you can’t ask for anything else.”
Mandaloun, who ran a still unexplainable sixth in the Louisiana Derby (G2) after winning the Risen Star (G2), put up a stiff fight.
“He absolutely ran his heart out. Words can’t describe how proud I am of him,’’ said jockey Florent Geroux. “What a race and what a horse. Well done to trainer Brad Cox. He got him ready to run off the Louisiana Derby effort. He showed us he is the horse we always thought. We just got beat.”
Essential Quality, who came into the race with a 5-0 record, was fourth but just a little more than a length behind the winner.
“He bumped pretty good (with Rock Your World) out of the gate,’’ said Essential Quality jockey Luis Saez. “We ended up getting pretty wide the entire trip which didn’t help either.”
Added Cox: “He didn’t get the greatest trip as he was wide around both turns. That can happen when you start from the 14 hole especially when don’t get off to a good start.”
The victory was worth $1,860,000 and increased Medina Spirit’s earnings to $2,175,200 with a record of 6-3-3-0.
O Besos was fifth, followed by 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.
“His heart is bigger than his body,’’ said Baffert. “When he turned for home, something just told me. He reminded me of Silver Charm. He doesn’t know how much he cost. He wouldn’t let anyone pass him. Mr. Zedan wanted to come to the Derby with a $45,000 horse. I thought we’d see what happens. This horse, the way he ran, I didn’t know he had it in him. Johnny Velazquez is unbelievable. He’s so cool. He told me last night not to underestimate this horse. He’s better than you think.”
He sure is, and now it’s on to the Preakness (G1) in two weeks as racing returned to its usual schedule of Triple Crown races. With the victory, Baffert moves into position to win a third Triple Crown after he won one with American Pharoah 2015 and another with Justify in 2018.
Baffert is the first trainer to win back-to-back Derbies since he pulled it off in 1997-98 with Real Quiet and Silver Charm.
The 68-year-old trainer broke a tie with Ben Jones, who won six Derbies from 1938-1952. Baffert’s previous Derby winners are Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015), Justify (2018) and Authentic (2020).
Velazquez’s other Derby wins came aboard Always Dreaming (2017) and Animal Kingdom (2011). He also became the eighth rider to win the Kentucky Oaks and Derby in the same year. He won the Oaks aboard Malathaat for trainer Todd Pletcher on Friday.
A crowd of 51,838 was at Churchill Downs for Derby Day, a far cry from eight months ago when there were no spectators for the rescheduled Derby, which was the second leg of the Triple Crown after the Belmont Stakes was run in June and the Preakness in October.
It took a few minutes to check the replay before Domestic Spending and Colonel Liam officially finished in a dead heat in 1 1/8-mile race for 4-year-olds and up.
In the race before the Kentucky Derby, this one had an incredible finish with Domestic Spending just getting up to match Colonel Liam after the two overtook the leader Smooth Like Strait.
Colonel Liam, ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr. and trained by Todd Pletcher, was sent off as the favorite, and returned $2.80 to win, while Domestic Spending, ridden by Flavien Prat and trained by Chad Brown, returned $5.20 to win.
Said Prat: “To be honest, I didn’t know the results. I came up on him so fast, I wasn’t sure. Right past the wire, I knew I was ahead of him, but at the wire, I wasn’t so sure.”
Pletcher said, “I was very proud of his effort. It looked like he edged clear inside the eighth pole and I was proud of the Irad urged on to the finish.”
Champion sprinter Gamine ($2.40) was rushed to the front after a bobble at the start and led the rest of the way for a 1 ½-length win over Sconsin in 7-furloing sprint for fillies and mares.
The victory gave Hall of Famer trainer Bob Baffert a record 220th Grade 1 victory.
Ridden by John Velazquez, 1-5 favorite Gamine, the 2020 champion female sprinter, won in 1:21.50.
The 4-year-old filly boosted her impressive record to 8-7-0-0 and topped the $1 million mark in career earnings ($1,286,500).
“I didn’t know I was that close to the record until a month ago. To do it here on this big day is very special,’’ said Baffert.
“She didn’t get to the break I hoped for, but she bounced back really quickly and ran really easy in the early going. She showed what a champion she was, and I was very proud of my filly,’’ said Velazquez.
Flagstaff ($11.80) came through the middle of a tight pack in the final yards to win the 86th running of the race for older horses by a head over Lexitonian, with Whitmore a nose back in third.
Ridden by Luis Saez and trained by John Sadler, Flagstaff covered the 7 furlongs in 1:21.82.
The victory was worth $288,300 for owners Lane’s End Racing and Hronis Racing and increased his earnings to $991,585 (19-7-6-3).
On the far turn, Flagstaff was shuffled back to fifth along the inside but Saez moved his horse five wide and surged to the lead at the top of the stretch.
Flagstaff, a 7-year-old gelding, looked like a solid winner, but was engulfed by Whitmore to his outside and Lexitonian to his inside in deep stretch but was able to hang on.
“When I saw everybody coming past me, I thought it was over, but he never gave up and finally he gave me the last little bit and we got there,’’ said Saez.
Added Sadler: “I’m thrilled. He’s a real hard knocker; he always runs his race. He knocked it out today.”
Blowout was doing just that for three-quarters of a mile, but then hung on for a half-length victory over New York Girl in the opening stakes on the Derby undercard.
Trained by Chad Brown, the 5-year-old filly was ridden by Flavien Prat and covered the mile over a firm turf in 1:36.30. Blowout, who was nailed at the wire in his previous three starts, led the field six fillies and mares by eighth lengths through a half-mile and led by five in the stretch before holding on her first graded stakes win.
Blowout ($5.80) improved to 12-4-7-1 and boosted her earnings to $718,600 for owner Peter Brant. Zofelle was third.
“I thought once they turned for home they were going to close in again and she was going to wait for horses, but he (Prat) said when she had the horses behind her, she kicked in again, thankfully.”
Yet another duel-to-the-wire thriller, with Jackie’s Warrior setting a blistering pace and then hold off Dream Shake by a head for a victory in the 97th running of this popular mile race for 3-year-olds.
Favorite Jackie’s Warrior ($6.60) is trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen and was ridden by Joel Rosario. The winner won in a time of 1:34.39.
A field of 11 broke from the gate, and it was J. Kirk and Judy Robison’s Jackie’s Warrior who shot to the lead. At the top of the stretch, Dream Shake made his move but could not get past the winner.
Jackie’s Warrior improved to 7-5-0-1 and increased his earnings to $868,964. Whiskey Double was third and Defunded fourth.
“I was pretty confident that he was going to hang in down the stretch,’’ said Rosario. “He likes when a horse comes up to him and he really digs in. I was not worried about the fast early pace because he fights very hard down the stretch.”
Who knew Bob Baffert could win a turf race?
Du Jour surged to the front at the sixteenth pole and went on for a 1 1/2-length victory over Lucky Law in the 1 1/16-mile turf race for 3-year-olds.
Ridden by Flavien Prat, Du Jour ($13.20) tracked the pace set by Excellent Timing, then moved past new leader Winfromwithin in the stretch and took control in the final sixteenth.
Du Jour is owned by Natalie Baffert and Debbie Lanni. It was the first stakes victory or Du Jour, who improved to 5-3-1-1 and lifted his earnings to $375,220.
“I’m really excited about it. And I’m just so happy for Jill,’’ said Baffert of his wife. “She has to deal with me as a trainer, and all the ups and downs. For that horse to win today, and to listen to her excitement, now she has something that’s hers.”
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.