John Velazquez returns to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle aboard Medina Spirit
The roar of even the smaller crowd of 51,838 beneath the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., sounded louder than ever, after the global pandemic forced the delayed 2020 edition of the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby to be held without spectators on Sept. 5. Returning to its rightful place on the first Saturday in May, the end result was the same: Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and John Velazquez teamed up to win the Run for the Roses.
Last year it was with Authentic, eventual Horse of the Year, tying Baffert with “Plain” Ben Jones for the most Kentucky Derby winners all time with six.
In this 147th edition, the horse was the bargain buy Medina Spirit ($26.20), owned by Derby first-timer Amr bin Fareer bin Mohammed bin Zedan. The son of Protonico cost just $1,000 as a yearling, and Zedan purchased him for $35,000 as a 2-year-old.
Medina Spirit grabbed the lead at the start from post position eight, set all the fractions, and fended off challenges from Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and the favored, previously undefeated champion Essential Quality through the length of the stretch to win by a half-length. He ran 1 1/4 miles over Churchill Downs’ fast main track in 2:01.02.
“That little horse has got a heart,” Baffert said. “(Velazquez) told me last night, ‘Don’t underestimate this horse, he’s better than you think, Bob. Don’t worry, we’ll get the job done.’”
“Every time I asked him to give more he kept fighting on,” Velazquez said. “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.”
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. Velazquez has won four editions (Animal Kingdom (2011), Always Dreaming (2017), and Authentic, 2020), one shy of the record, and also captured this year’s Kentucky Oaks with the Todd Pletcher-trained Malathaat. He is the eighth rider to win the Oaks and Derby in the same year, following most recently Calvin Borel in 2009.
Baffert has now saddled seven winners of the Kentucky Derby (Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (2015), Triple Crown winner Justify (2018), and Authentic (2020)), more than any other trainer in history.
Baffert has also come under scrutiny over the past year with a spate of medication violations – two at Oaklawn Park that involved champion Gamine (who won the G1 Derby City Distaff earlier on the Kentucky Derby card) and G1 Arkansas Derby winner Charlatan, a second violation involving Gamine in the G1 Kentucky Oaks and a fourth violation at Del Mar with a filly named Merneith. The California Horse Racing Board also reviewed whether or not Triple Crown winner Justify should have been disqualified from the G1 Santa Anita Derby in 2018 after testing above the limit for scopolamine. The regulatory board opted not to disqualify Justify or charge Baffert with a violation.
Medina Spirit was bred in Florida by Gail Rice, mother of Eclipse Award finalist Taylor Rice (apprentice jockey) and mother-in-law to top jockey Jose Ortiz, out of the Brilliant Speed mare Mongolian Changa. The mare failed to produce milk when Medina Spirit was first born, and Rice had to turn to her only other broodmare, Scribbling Sarah, for assistance. The young Medina Spirit thrived, and his own mom started producing milk several hours later.
Unfortunately, Rice’s divorce forced the sale of Medina Spirit as a yearling. He brought the bottom-dollar bid of $1,000 at the OBS Winter Mixed sale in early 2019, and she had no choice but to let him go.
“I kept telling people, ‘This horse can run!’” Rice said. “Just his body and his leg, and the intelligent attitude he had; I always thought he was special.”
As it so happens, “Sarah” became the dam of Grade 1 Ashland winner Speech in 2020 (delayed to July due to the pandemic). Medina Spirit won the G3 Bob Lewis Stakes in late January of 2021.
“It’s just crazy to think about,” Rice told the Paulick Report earlier this year. “I haven’t had many broodmares in my whole career, only ever one or two at a time, just playing around. And to have this happen in back-to-back years? It’s crazy.”
Bloodstock agent Gary Young saw the 2-year-old Medina Spirit at the 2020 OBS July sale, and recommended the purchase to Zedan. The owner, who has been in racing for just five years, is a Saudi Arabian businessman, philanthropist, and an international polo player who has lived in the U.S. as well.
The small, nearly black colt broke his maiden at first asking at Los Alamitos in December, and was just three-quarters of a length behind his highly-touted stablemate Life Is Good in the G3 Sham Stakes Jan. 2 at Santa Anita.
Next out, Medina Spirit won the G3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes in an absolute dog fight over Roman Centurian and Hot Rod Charlie. Soundly defeated by Life Is Good in the G2 San Felipe, Baffert decided to have minor throat surgery performed on Medina Spirit, helping the colt to breathe a bit better.
Medina Spirit returned in the G1 Santa Anita Derby to run second to turf-to-dirt winner Rock Your World, after racing off the lead. Velazquez decided to change his tactics for the Kentucky Derby.
“We talked about it over and over,” Velazquez said. “He’s all heart. Let’s put him in the game and let him fight the whole way around.”
Highly Motivated broke a bit to the right from post 17, and was corrected sharply to the left, bumping into Rock Your World at the start. Rock Your World then collided with Essential Quality, but the gray colt was able to muscle by that rival for the better position. Still, the contact left Rock Your World out of his element near the rear of the field racing toward the clubhouse turn, and forced Luis Saez on Essential Quality to use a little more horse early in the race than he would otherwise have liked to.
Meanwhile, Velazquez sent Medina Spirit straight to the lead, tracked by Soup and Sandwich through an opening quarter in 23.09 seconds.
Mandaloun got a perfect inside trip in third position alongside Helium, while Hot Rod Charlie was forwardly-placed as well. Jockey Luis Saez guided juvenile champion Essential Quality forward to take up sixth on the far outside, as much as five paths off the rail down the backstretch.
Medina Spirit continued under a confident ride from Velazquez, ticking off fractions of 46.70 seconds and 1:11.21 for six furlongs, not overly fast for the classic distance. Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie were both taking closer aim as Medina Spirit led through the final turn, as was the five-wide Essential Quality. Velazquez held Medina Spirit well off the inside fence as the pair turned for home in front.
Mandaloun got first run on Medina Spirit, and Hot Rod Charlie was alongside him. Essential Quality made his move as well, making it a four-wide rush across the track from the eighth pole.
Despite everything that was against him, from his bargain-basement purchase price to the atypically humble opinion expressed by his Hall of Fame trainer leading up to the race, Medina Spirit dug deep and delivered the garland of roses to his connections.
Mandaloun and Florent Geroux, rebounding off a flat sixth-place effort in the Louisiana Derby, were hardly disgraced in second, while Hot Rod Charlie fought all the way to the wire as well to finish third, beaten just a length. Essential Quality, who perhaps had the longest trip of the 19-horse field, was also beaten just a length by the winner in finishing fourth.
The full order of finish was as follows: Medina Spirit, Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, Essential Quality, O Besos, 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.
A battle down to the wire!
Watch the replay of the Kentucky Derby. pic.twitter.com/1YPo3DRTJZ
— Kentucky Derby (@KentuckyDerby) May 1, 2021
MANDALOUN Jockey Florent Geroux, (Second): “He absolutely ran his heart out. Words can’t describe how proud I am of him. 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.”
HOT ROD CHARLIE Jockey Flavien Prat, (Third): “He ran great.”
ESSENTIAL QUALITY Jockey Luis Saez, (Fourth): “He bumped pretty good (with Rock Your World) out of the gate. We ended up getting pretty wide the entire trip which didn’t help either.”
O BESOS Jockey Marcelino Pedroza, (Fifth): “He got a little head strong in the stretch for the first time but I got him settled into the perfect spot. He was moving so comfortably around the turn and we got in the perfect spot to make a run at the leaders. He’s a phenomenal horse.”
MIDNIGHT BOURBON Jockey Mike Smith, (Sixth): “We simply missed the break.”
KEEPMEINMIND Jockey David Cohen, (Seventh): “I have to be proud of his effort. He ran a good race and I’m very thankful for Robertino (Diodoro) for being so loyal to us.”
HELIUM Jockey Julien Leparoux, (Eighth): “I got him in a good spot out of the break and he just flattened.”
KNOWN AGENDA, Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., (Ninth): “We made a move on the backside but just sort of flattened.”
HIGHLY MOTIVATED Jockey Javier Castellano, (10th): “We got into a good spot but just didn’t fire.”
SAINTHOOD Jockey Corey Lanerie, (11th): “I couldn’t have gotten into a better spot but he just didn’t have enough to get it done.”
LIKE THE KING Jockey Drayden Van Dyke, (12th): “He didn’t really handle the dirt.”
BOURBONIC Jockey Kendrick Carmouche, (13th): “I just never could get a good run at them.”
HIDDEN STASH Jockey Rafael Bejarano, (14th): “I didn’t want to try and get him out of his rhythm too soon but when I needed to go he was just flat.”
BROOKLYN STRONG Jockey Umberto Rispoli, (15th): “He broke a little slow out of the gate but he tried.”
SUPER STOCK Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., (16th): “Didn’t have it today.”
ROCK YOUR WORLD Jockey Joel Rosario, (17th): “It was pretty much over after the break. We got out of position from there and it was a tough trip to overcome in a race like the Derby.”
DYNAMIC ONE Jockey Jose Ortiz, (18th): “Didn’t fire.”
SOUP AND SANDWICH Jockey Tyler Gaffalione, (19th): “We got away from the gate good but he faded late.”
MEDINA SPIRIT Trainer Bob Baffert, (First): “This little horse coming in here, he’s always shown he’s an overachiever. His heart is bigger than his body. When he turned for home, something just told me. He reminded me of Silver Charm (Baffert’s 1st Derby winner). 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.”
MANDALOUN Trainer Brad Cox, (Second): “He ran huge. He saved ground along the inside, battled and battled hard, thought he had a shot to win it there, We just came up a little short.”
HOT ROD CHARLIE Trainer Doug O’Neill, (Third): “I’m proud; very proud. He ran huge. It looked to me like he had a good trip. But Flavin (rider Flavien Prat) might have a different take on that. We’re honored and blessed to have a horse like this. I’m so proud of him. And know for sure that he’ll be back.”
ESSENTIAL QUALITY Trainer Brad Cox, (Fourth): “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. He was leaning out on the far turn and Luis (Saez) said he was shying away from the other horses. We will just have to regroup. Proud of both horses. They trained well and just wish the order of finish was just a little different.”
O BESOS Trainer Greg Foley, (Fifth): “I’m so proud of our horse. He tried so hard. We got a great trip. He settled well after getting a little rank going down the stretch.”
MIDNIGHT BOURBON Trainer Steve Asmussen, (Sixth): “We missed the break and that’s the only thing I thought he’d do right.”
KEEPMEINMIND Trainer Robertino Diodoro, (Seventh): “The one thing we wanted was to get him back to his old ways and he relaxed the way we wanted. David (Cohen) said they started moving so fast he had to swing him out wider than we wanted. No excuses. We’re happy with the horse. You don’t want to be happy with seventh, but we are.”
HELIUM Trainer Mark Casse, (Eighth): “He finished mid-pack but just wasn’t good enough.”
KNOWN AGENDA, Trainer Todd Pletcher, (Ninth): “He never got into position. He made a move around the far turn but got shuffled back. I’m going to have to watch the replay.”
HIGHLY MOTIVATED Trainer Chad Brown, (10th): “I thought I got a great trip, into the first turn and down the backside, and he just didn’t fire today. I thought I got a hot setup and I wanted to be just behind that and that’s where we were. He got over early, he saved ground on both turns; I got a dream trip. I hate to waste that kind of trip in the Derby on a horse that didn’t fire today. It is what it is and we’ll just have to regroup.”
SAINTHOOD Trainer Todd Pletcher, (11th): “He never got into position.”
LIKE THE KING Trainer Wesley Ward, (12th): “It was a great experience. The big question mark was if he would like the dirt. He worked great leading up to the race. We were very happy with the day but his future will be on the grass.”
BOURBONIC Trainer Todd Pletcher, (13th): “He never got into position… I’m going to have to watch the replay.”
HIDDEN STASH Trainer Vicki Oliver, (14th): “He looks like he came out of it OK. He ate a lot of dirt but we scoped him and he’s fine. I just jogged him in the shedrow and he’s tired but he should be OK. He ran his race. Rafael (Bejarano) said he broke real good, but he had to check him several times. Horses were in front of him and there was nowhere to go.”
BROOKLYN STRONG Trainer Danny Velazquez, (15th): “It’s a tough load with 20 horses. You’re in there a long time. Umberto (Rispoli) said he wasn’t standing correctly and he broke a little slow. Our horse was really trying. No harm, no foul. If he comes back OK, we’ll go to the Belmont.”
SUPER STOCK Trainer Steve Asmussen, (16th): Couldn’t be reached for comment.
ROCK YOUR WORLD Trainer John Sadler, (17th): “We got squeezed at the start and we were done. No chance.”
DYNAMIC ONE Trainer Todd Pletcher, (18th): “We could never get in positon.”
SOUP AND SANDWICH Trainer Mark Casse, (19th): “We’ll regroup and see where we go from here.”
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