May 1 (UPI) — Medina Spirit led early and never quit, running on to win Saturday’s Kentucky Derby and giving his trainer, Bob Baffert, a record seventh victory in the Run for the Roses.
Even Baffert said he was stunned by the upset by a colt who sold for $1,000 as a yearling and had only two previous wins from five starts.
The victory was all the sweeter for the silver-haired trainer as several of his better-fancied prospects had dropped off the Triple Crown path early, leaving Medina Spirit as his last hope.
Baffert, normally front-and-center on Derby week, had been flying beneath the radar and out of the Churchill Downs spotlight as Medina Spirit was overlooked by most of the expert handicappers.
That all changed in 2 minutes, 1.02 seconds. With John Velazquez riding, Medina Spirit forged to the lead the first time past the finish line. Setting an honest pace, he briefly appeared to be tiring as the field swung into the long Churchill Downs stretch.
But on a day when front-runners seemed do well throughout, no one could get past the son of Protonico.
Mandaloun, who raced second or third through most of the 1 1/4 miles, briefly got to even terms at mid-stretch, but finished second, 1/2 length back of the winner, with Hot Rod Charlie third. The favorite, previously undefeated Essential Quality, finished fourth.
“I cannot believe he won that race,” Baffert said. “I knew he was training well but I’m really, really surprised. He’s a little horse with a big heart.”
In his previous start, the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, Velazquez let Rock Your World make the early lead and he wasn’t able to catch him.
“Last time, the other horse showed so much speed and just kept running,” said Velazquez, who won the Derby for the fourth time. “Today, I told Bob we were going to put him on the lead and see what happens.”
Rock Your World, meanwhile, was soundly bumped at the start Saturday, shuffled back in the 19-horse field and beat only two rivals as one of the wagering favorites.
Medina Spirit now has won three of his six career starts. He was 4 1/2 lengths back of Rock Your World at the finish of the Santa Anita Derby and, in the race before that, finished second, 8 lengths behind another Baffert horse, Life Is Good, in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
Now, only he has a chance to become Baffert’s third Triple Crown winner, following American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.
The next step is the Preakness Stakes in two weeks’ time at Pimlico in Baltimore, followed by the Belmont Stakes in New York three weeks after that.
The colt is owned by Zedan Racing Stables, founded in 2016 by Saudi businessman Amr Zedan. He changed hands twice, with Zedan acquiring him for $35,000. His Derby earnings pushed his bankroll to $2,175,200.
Medina Spirit is named for the city of Medina, second holiest city in Islam, after Mecca.
His sire, Protonico, is by Giant’s Causeway, a major figure in English and Irish breeding who finished second by a neck behind Tiznow in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
Giant’s Causeway, in turn, was sired by Storm Cat, whose progeny have helped shape American racing.
The Derby was the high spot of a generally spectacular day for Baffert as he moved out of a tie with Ben Jones to become the all-time leading Derby trainer.
Earlier on the Churchill Downs program, he saddled Gamine to win the $500,000 Grade I Derby City Distaff — his record 220th Grade I score. He had been tied with D. Wayne Lukas for that mark.
Two races later, he sent out Du Jour to victory in the $500,000 Grade II American Turf. The pot for that was sweetened by the fact Baffert’s wife, Jill, is a co-owner, and that Baffert seldom trains turf horses.
Saturday’s 147th running of the Derby was a ray of sunshine — literally and figuratively — after more than a year of pandemic restrictions had throttled racing.
Those precautions forced Churchill Downs to move last year’s Run for the Roses back four months to September, and the race was run without fans.
Saturday, the fans were back, albeit at less than half the usual numbers. The weather was picture perfect and with a little imagination, “normal” was on the bluegrass horizon.
Especially as “normal” now seems to mean a Baffert horse wins the Kentucky Derby.