Bob Baffert keeps a lid on Triple Crown plans for Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit

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Jockey John Velazquez, left, watches as trainer Bob Baffert holds up the winner's trophy after they victory.
Jockey John Velazquez, left, watches as trainer Bob Baffert celebrates Medina Spirit's Kentucky Derby win Saturday. Will Medina Spirit challenge for the Triple Crown? (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

The morning after the Kentucky Derby is normally when thoughts turn to winning the Triple Crown. The winning trainer tries to temper expectations while at the same time making everyone believe that it's a possibility.

Bob Baffert has had that conversation six of the seven times a horse he trained won the world’s most recognizable race. Last year, the Derby was the second race in the Triple Crown, so there was no such talk.

But Sunday morning, outside Barn 33 on the Churchill Downs backside, Baffert was more about the past than the future. He didn’t even commit to sending Medina Spirit, winner of the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby, to the next stop on the Triple Crown road — the Preakness Stakes in two weeks at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. But the smart money is on his presence.

“Can he win the Triple Crown?” Baffert asked rhetorically. “I don’t know, but he’s the Derby winner and that’s all that matters.”

It’s very different than in 2018, when Baffert brought out Justify for a photo op, only to have it turn into a faux-controversy about how Justify was standing on one of his back legs. It didn’t matter, as Justify became Baffert’s second Triple Crown winner in four years.

The field for this year’s Preakness is a work in progress, and perhaps the biggest threat to Medina Spirit winning is one of his stablemates, Concert Tour.

Concert Tour was Baffert’s top horse before he ran third in the Arkansas Derby. Baffert and owners Gary and Mary West elected to skip the Kentucky Derby with an eye toward the Preakness.

Now that Medina Spirit is the surprise winner of the Kentucky Derby, Baffert has to decide whether he wants to try to beat his horse with another one of his horses. He played it coy Sunday.

“[Medina Spirit] came out of it well,” Baffert said. “It takes about a week to determine, so I’m going to come back next weekend and see. But I don’t see anything discouraging right now.

“Concert Tour worked well this morning, I’ll sit down and talk to Mr. West. He wants that horse to develop, and we’re not rushing things. We know he’s a good horse, so we’ll see next week how he is. The thing is how they’re training. They both would have to be training well.”

It's not a lock that the winner of the Preakness will come out of Baffert’s Santa Anita-based barn. Trainer Brad Cox also holds big cards — second-place finisher Mandaloun and Derby favorite and fourth-place finisher Essential Quality. Both colts were clearly in range of passing Medina Spirit in the deep stretch, but neither could get it done.

“Just unsure,” Cox said. “We’ll watch both colts — kind of typical trainer talk. We’ll get them back to the track in three or four days and see how they’re moving. No commitments at all. I mean, I love the Preakness. It’s a great weekend, probably one of the best weekends of the year, and we’ll definitely have horses for the undercard.”

Essential Quality collided with Rock Your World out of the gate but was able to get back in the race. Rock Your World was eliminated at that point.

Cox defends Essential Quality’s fourth-place finish.

“I think he was the best horse,” Cox said. “People can say what they want, but he was beaten a length and ran 68 feet farther than the winner and had a little bit of trouble at the start. The winner ran huge. When you see a horse lay down those fractions and still keep going, you can’t take anything away from that horse.

Medina Spirit, right, leads Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality to the finish line at the Kentucky Derby.
Medina Spirit, right, leads Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality to the finish line at the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

“I thought Essential was kind of compromised at the start and then was kind of in chase mode pretty much the whole way. He just never could get comfortable, take his deep breath to where he could gather himself up and come with a strong finish. But he did stay on extremely well.”

Cox also has Caddo River, who was set to run in the Derby until he experienced a high fever early Derby week. Caddo River finished second in the Arkansas Derby.

Three days before the running of the Derby, Baffert sat with two reporters, his wife, Jill, and jockey agent Ron Anderson for an hour-long bull session. The topic of picking the Derby winner came up and how difficult it can be.

Baffert talked about how easy it is to rationalize why a horse won after the race is run. Hindsight is pretty accurate.

Among the theories he brought up has nothing to do with fractions or speed figures but gets to the core of the sport and its most successful Kentucky Derby trainer.

“I should have bet Baffert,” he said as a strategy, slapping his head with a laugh and a smile.

He might not have thought that theory was spot on then, but he sure does now.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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