But perhaps Baffert has never brought to Louisville a 3-year-old with greater heart than pace-setting Medina Spirit, and that allowed him to surpass legendary Ben Jones for the all-time lead with his seventh Derby triumph on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
“I just can’t believe it. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” the 68-year-old Baffert told NBC after Medina Spirit fought off Mandaloun by half a length to close a glorious spring day beneath the famed Twin Spires.
The 147th edition of the nation’s premier race represented a triumph in itself. The Derby returned to the first Saturday in May, embraced by a crowd limited to 51,838 fans as a precaution as the nation gradually recovers from the pandemic. COVID-19 forced the race to be contested on the first Saturday in September last year and to be held without spectators.
Fittingly, Medina Spirit embodied the grit that will be required for the world to recover from a disease that has brought so much death and misery. The son of Protonico may have entered the $3 million run for the roses with a less-than-gaudy two victories in five career starts. But it also was true that he had never been passed by a rival.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my team and that little horse,” Baffert said, adding, “He was all racehorse today.”
With Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez controlling the pace, the 12-1 shot completed the mile and a quarter in 2:01.02 seconds. He took the field through an opening quarter of a mile in 23:09 seconds. The half went in :46.70. He was still going strong through three-quarters of a mile in 1:11.21.
“We got to the sixteenth pole and he kept putting his ears down and fighting,” Velazquez said.
The seemingly-ageless Velazquez, 49, secured his fourth Derby and his second in as many years. He also captured the premier race for fillies when he rallied Malathaat to a Longines Kentucky Oaks victory on Friday.
Medina Spirit was purchased by owner Amr bin Fareer bin Mohammed bin Zedan for $35,000 as a 2-year-old. He had gone for a mere $1,000 as a yearling.
“He doesn’t know how much he cost,” Baffert said.
Baffert’s previous Derby successes came with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), and then with front-running Authentic in 2020.
Medina Spirit surely ranks among the least likely of his Derby success stories. He was forced to settle for second in each of his previous two starts. Stablemate Life Is Good whipped him by eight lengths in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes before he was sidelined with an injury. Derby rival Rock Your World rocked him by 4 ¼ lengths in the Grade 1 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby.
Baffert admitted he arrived in Louisville expecting little beyond the usual good time he enjoys with family and friends. The immense pressure he felt with overwhelming favorites such as American Pharoah and Justify was absent.
“This year, I really enjoyed myself. I came in below the radar,” he said. “I thought maybe we could get a piece of it.”
Instead, the pieces went to Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby sixth-place finisher Mandaloun, Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie, and Essential Quality, a stablemate of Mandaloun’s that was favored to make Brad Cox the first Louisville native to win the Derby.
It perhaps offered some consolation to Cox that Mandaloun strongly rebounded after a perplexingly dull effort in the Louisiana Derby. “He absolutely ran his heart out,” said Florent Geroux, Mandaloun’s jockey. “Words can’t describe how proud I am of him. What a race and what a horse.”
Trainer Doug O’Neill, bidding for his third Derby triumph, was delighted with Hot Rod Charlie, who has come such a long way since he was a runner-up to Essential Quality in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance as a 94-1 bomb. “We’re honored and blessed to have a horse like this. I’m so proud of him,” O’Neill said. “And know for sure that he’ll be back.”
Jockey Luis Saez knew he was in trouble from the outset with 2-year-old champion Essential Quality. “He bumped pretty good [with Rock Your World] out of the gate,” said Saez, who broke from post 14 in the 19-horse field. “We ended up getting pretty wide the entire trip, which didn’t help, either.”
And so history belongs to Baffert, whose powerhouse stable has rattled off four Derby winners in the last seven years. At this frenetic pace, there is no telling how far he can extend his record.