For Medina Spirit’s Breeder, Heading to the Preakness Stakes Is a Bittersweet Affair

The feel-good story of small-time horsewoman Gail Rice, who bred the Derby winner, took a dark turn this week.
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ANTHONY, Fla. — Medina Spirit has been entered to run in the Preakness on Saturday, so Gail Rice is going to Baltimore. She has a plane ticket and a ticket to the race, with details still to be ironed out regarding a rental car and hotel. “And I have to buy a dress,” she says with one of her frequent laughs.

Rice helped bring Medina Spirit into this world—literally pulling his forelegs out of his mother, Mongolian Changa, at a postage stamp of a farm here on April 5, 2018. She drove into the yard—there isn’t much of a driveway—that afternoon and saw that it was high time for a baby. So she grabbed her daughter-in-law, Emily, to assist.

Slick with sweat and the fluids of birth as the foal came forth, they had no idea what a portentous moment it would turn out to be. They can show you the exact patch of dirt where the birth happened, and how Gail ran to her trailer to fetch some refrigerated colostrum from another mare when Mongolian Changa’s milk didn’t come in, and how they nursed the baby through those anxious early moments.

As Rice recounts that joyously messy story, two of her four grandchildren play around her legs. Waylon is piloting a miniature tractor with considerable aplomb for a two-year-old. Bailey, 4, is clutching a worn-out stuffed bunny. Nearby are three dogs, many chickens and rabbits, some goats and two potbellied pigs, Chester and Walter, who wobble to their feet and shuffle about at a pace rather unlike a race horse. This is an unfathomably modest birthplace for a Kentucky Derby winner, as far removed as possible from the palatial breeding farms around Lexington, Ky., and nearby Ocala, with their massive rolling pastures and grandiose entryways.

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Three years later, Medina Spirit provided Rice the biggest racing thrill of her life by winning the Derby. Then this week, it turned into something else, something jarringly sad and frustrating. A positive test for the prohibited race-day substance betamethasone became public, imperiling that Derby victory and steeping trainer Bob Baffert in controversy. The feel-good story of a small-time horsewoman who bred the Derby winner took a dark turn.

But Rice, the 59-year-old font of energetic happiness, is not giving in to the negativity surrounding her baby. “Let me tell you, it’s been crazy,” she says. “People are acting like Bob is abusing the horse, and he’s not. But I wanted to always keep on a positive note, keep it off my plate and turn it over to God. And Medina Spirit is in the Preakness.”

For now. There is another round of drug-test results to get past before the colt is cleared for competition. And even if Medina Spirit runs in the Preakness, the likelihood seems high that his Kentucky Derby split sample will come back positive for betamethasone, which Baffert says was in a topical ointment used to treat a rash. If that happens, his win in America’s greatest horse race would be nullified.

Yet none of this diminishes Rice’s conviction that something incredible happened on her son’s farm three years ago. Somehow, the coupling of a low-budget sire (Protonico) and a modest mare (Mongolian Changa) produced a champion. As a baby, Medina Spirit possessed a noteworthy energy. “He floated,” Rice says. “He was happy all the time. … But when he played, he played hard.”

Medina Spirit did not make her rich, but it has made her semi-famous; the story of how this woman sold a future Derby winner for $1,000 is the stuff of screenplays. When asked who would play her in the movie, Rice quickly responded that she would take on the role herself.

A gymnast and cheerleader growing up in Pennsylvania, Rice knew nothing about horses. Then one night at age 21, after her second-shift job in data processing, she went to the bar at a local Holiday Inn and met up with an old high-school friend, Wayne Rice, who was a horseman. The two were married, and she also married into a family business that has become her passion.

Still, passion and prosperity can be two different things. Owning just a couple of horses at a time, none of them regally bred, Rice is hardly one of the tycoons who tend to dominate the high end of the sport. And thus, as she was going through her second divorce, in 2019, she sold Medina Spirit because she needed money. Rice feared she wouldn’t be able to afford the feed bills that never go away—whether horses are running or not, they still need to eat every day.

So she put the colt up for auction in the Ocala winter sale … and the bidding was a non-event. Christy Whitman was the only bidder, buying the horse for about the same price as a set of Callaway irons. Rice was disappointed, and she thought about entering her own bid to either keep the colt or goose up the price, but decided that wouldn’t be honest.

So Whitman got a yearling who surely didn’t augur greatness. But before she put him up for auction at a 2-year-old sale in Ocala, Medina Spirit flashed his ability with a three-furlong breeze in 33 seconds. That caught the eye of bloodstock agent Gary Young, who made the purchase for owner Amr Zedan and trainer Baffert.

As Medina Spirit’s career progressed in California, Rice took note back home in Florida. When the horse earned his way into the Derby, Rice made the trip to Louisville. (Her son-in-law, jockey Jose Ortiz, rode Dynamic One in the same race, doubling her interest.)

With Medina Spirit leading down the stretch and fending off challenges from three pursuers, Rice tried to record it on her phone, but the video was a cacophonous jumble of sounds and images. When her baby hit the finish line first, Rice took off screaming, “I pulled him out of his mother!” Then she encountered a friend and blurted, “I just won the f---ing Derby!”

From there, Rice followed the swirling mass of celebrants into the winner’s circle, even if she wasn’t supposed to be there. She introduced herself to Baffert and asked to pet the horse; he reluctantly agreed. The next morning, after barely sleeping, she showed up at the Churchill Downs barn area for a longer talk with Baffert and the chance to kiss Medina Spirit on the nose in his stall. She believes the horse recognized her.

It was the sweetest of stories … for a week.

Now, it’s a complicated mess of a story. Acrimony accompanies Medina Spirit to Pimlico Race Course for the second leg of the Triple Crown, where he is the 9–5 favorite. Baffert will not be present, attempting to deescalate the situation, but it seems entirely possible that the horse will be booed when he takes the track Saturday.

Gail Rice, for one, doesn’t want to hear it. Won’t hear it. Will do her best to drown it out.

“No,” she says. “The cheers are going to go up, starting with me.”

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