Horse Racing's Best Team Props Up a Fierce Underdog in Riveting Kentucky Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The euphoria came spilling out across the track at Churchill Downs and into the winner’s circle, joy tinged with disbelief, a moving jumble of people whooping and hugging in the afterglow of a Kentucky Derby result that was simultaneously very familiar and largely unexpected.

“I won the Derby,” said Amr Zedan, Saudi Arabian businessman and owner of Medina Spirit, while sobbing into a phone. “I won the Derby.”

On the other end of the conversation was Zedan’s father. His response, “Calm down, be humble about it, and thank God.”

In Zedan’s wake came the rest of the crew, stoked and ready to celebrate. “This town is not safe tonight!” Yelled one guy, who then wrapped his arm around the man who owns America’s greatest horse race like no other.

“Can you f—king believe this s—?” asked Bob Baffert, in a blissful state of shock.

“I told you we had no shot!” Baffert yelled to Zedan. “How about that. Can you believe it?”

Believe it. Baffert won his record seventh Derby on Saturday and second in a row, after a thrilling stretch duel between gritty Medina Spirit and Mandaloun, with two others in hot pursuit. But this time he did it with a bargain-basement horse that was sent off at 12-1 odds after generating far less buzz than a typical Baffert entry in this race.

Medina Spirit pulls away in the homestretch of the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Medina Spirit pulls away at the homestretch.

In a sport where the most regally bred yearlings can cost millions, Medina Spirit was originally sold for the laughable price of $1,000. His breeder, Gail Rice, was going through a divorce and put him up for sale at the Ocala (Fla.) Breeders’ Sales in the winter of 2019, and he drew just one bid. Medina Spirit later was put back on the block at age 2, and Zedan bought him for $35,000.

That’s far below the market value of Baffert’s top horses. Life Is Good, the Baffert trainee many people expected to see win this race, cost $525,000.

Life Is Good looked the part of the latest Baffert monster earlier this year, including a win over Medina Spirit in the San Felipe Stakes in March. But then the colt was injured and knocked off the Triple Crown trail, leaving Baffert searching down his depth chart.

Medina Spirit didn’t do much to inspire confidence when he was beaten in the Santa Anita Derby in April by Rock Your World. Although the horse was always competitive, coming into Louisville off consecutive losses quenched any and all hype. “I came in here under the radar,” Baffert said.

After watching Baffert contest this race for 25 years, there are indicators of how he feels about his chances—and the indicators were all tepid throughout the week. He didn’t attend the post position draw on Tuesday, and on Wednesday he leaned against a sawhorse outside his Barn 33 on the Churchill backside shooting the breeze for a leisurely hour. The conversation was mostly about past Derbies; very little was said about Medina Spirit and this year’s race.

“Maybe he'll get a piece of it or something,” Baffert said, just hoping his colt would hit the board. “I had [Zedan and his group] prepared for a loss.”

When Medina Spirit took to the Churchill track in morning workouts, he elicited almost no reaction. In fact, one trainer watched him gallop Wednesday morning and cracked, “You can see why he only cost $35,000. Not much to look at.” Now the animal has a $1.86 million payday on his body of work.

Only two of Baffert’s seven winners have gone off at double-digit odds: War Emblem at 21-1 in 2002 and now Medina Spirit. The horses drawing all the attention this time were unbeaten 2-year-old champion Essential Quality (the favorite at 3-1, Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie (6-1) and Rock Your World (5-1).

But Medina Spirit had three things going for him: the best trainer in the business; the best jockey in the business (John Velazquez); and the sheer speed to get the lead and dictate terms to the rest of the field. After studying the field, Velazquez believed he could put his horse out front.

“I know we were quick,” said Velazquez, who rode Authentic to victory in the 2020 Derby and has now won this race four times. “And the more I looked at the race, the more I studied the race, I knew he was faster than the rest of the horses.”

The primary competition for the lead figured to be Rock Your World, who wired the field in the Santa Anita Derby and drew off from Medina Spirit. But Rock Your World was slow leaving the gate, shut off immediately in traffic and never had a chance to get there. Meanwhile, Velazquez got Median Spirit away alertly, with Soup and Sandwich and Helium giving chase.

Anticipating that there would be no withering speed duel, Velazquez settled his colt into a comfortable pace: 23.09 seconds for the first quarter-mile, then 46.70 at the half-mile point, and 1:11.21 midway through the race. When that 1:11 flashed on the big video board, it became clear that Velazquez had a chance to steal the race on the front end.

But this was a hard-earned theft. Mandaloun, the second-stringer in Brad Cox’s barn behind Essential Quality, loomed alongside Medina Spirit on the turn and never went away. Then here came Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality (trying to overcome a wide trip) in the stretch. With four horses all surging, it looked like any of the pursuers might go past Medina Spirit and win the roses.

“I kept waiting for all those horses to pass him, you know?” Baffert said. “When they turned for home I go, ‘Well, I think [Velazquez] is out of horse. And all of a sudden I go, ‘Wait a minute…’ “

The Medina Spirit team, including trainer Bob Baffert, celebrate winning the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Trainer Bob Baffert (left) celebrates Medina Spirit's win with jockey John Velasquez (center) and owner Amr Zedan.

Baffert’s quarter century at the top of the thoroughbred game has been rife with racing drama, from losing a photo finish in 1996 in his first Derby (“I never thought I’d be back”) to losing a Triple Crown in a photo two years later. “I'm ready for that punch to the gut in this business,” he said. No gut punches this time; just backslaps and hugs.

Medina Spirit showed his best attribute in that stretch battle: he is a fiercely competitive horse. With Velazquez and Mandaloun jockey Florent Giroux both applying stout left-handed whipping to their mounts, Medina refused to let anyone get by him.

“That little horse is all guts,” Baffert said. “His heart is bigger than his body.”

The winning margin, a half-length, was the closest Derby since 2005. This was a brawl to the finish, and the toughest horse won.

“I know he's a fighter,” Velazquez said. “Every time I asked him for more, he kept going more and more. That's all you ask for a horse.”

The taut drama was the final gift of this Kentucky Derby weekend, a sun-splashed return to near-normalcy in American sports. The crowd of 51,838 was about one-third the usual size, but it still is the highest attendance of any event since the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020. When Baffert won the delayed Derby last year, it was on Labor Day weekend and in front of maybe 1,000 people in an eerily quiet Churchill Downs.

By comparison, this was a jolt of pent-up energy. The crowd was heedlessly festive, pretty much ignoring whatever health policies Churchill tried to enforce. (Hopefully without major COVID-19 fallout in the weeks to come.) A country hungry for a comeback got a taste of it on the first Saturday in May—a raucous, boozy festival that played out like a dream, helping to remind us how fun big sporting events can be. 

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