His Derby day of Derby days: Basking in the glow of being Bob Baffert

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So how was your Saturday?

It didn’t beat Bob Baffert’s Saturday. With the possible exception of a national lottery winner, no one on planet Earth had a better Saturday than Bob Baffert.

The trainer won three races at Churchill Downs. Gamine won the Derby City Distaff Stakes, giving Baffert a record 220th Grade 1 victory, one ahead of D. Wayne Lukas. Du Jour won the Grade 2 American Turf Stakes. And Du Jour is co-owned by Baffert’s wife Jill along with Debbi Lanni. Then last but not least, Baffert won a little get-together we call the Kentucky Derby. For a record seventh time.

“These days, you’ve got to appreciate them,” said the 68-year-old trainer Sunday morning.

He was standing on the Churchill backside with his back to the glory wall of his Barn 33. Behind and above him were placards celebrating his accomplishments. One lists Baffert’s previous six Derby winners — 1997-Silver Charm; 1998-Real Quiet; 2002-War Emblem; 2015 American Pharoah; 2018-Justify; 2020-Authentic. Coming soon: 2021-Medina Spirit.

Twelve hours after the fact, Baffert still seemed a bit baffled by what had transpired the day before. Medina Spirit was a $35,000 purchase as a 2-year-old, after all. His sire Protonico has a $5,000 live foal breeding fee at Castleton Lyons in Lexington. A star among stallions he is not. Until now.

In fact, someone reminded Baffert on Sunday that his horse Hoppertunity beat Protonico in the 2014 Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. Baffert remembered it well. He was at the UCLA-Stanford football game, watching the race online.

“(Protonico) was coming up on the outside and someone asked me later if I was worried,” he said. “I wasn’t, because someone had already texted me congratulations. The race was on delay.”

Trainer Bob Baffert stood with Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit outside his barn on the backside at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Sunday. “He wasn’t as tired as I thought he might be. A big race like that, but he handled it quite well,” Baffert said.
Trainer Bob Baffert stood with Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit outside his barn on the backside at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Sunday. “He wasn’t as tired as I thought he might be. A big race like that, but he handled it quite well,” Baffert said.

A second-crop foal, Medina Spirit had never been worse than second in his five career starts. Yet he was 1-for-4 in 2021. He was a 12-1 shot Saturday, well below the typical battleships Baffert brings to Louisville for the first Saturday in May. “We were under the radar,” said the trainer.

Ah, but as fellow trainer Doug O’Neill pointed out Saturday, Baffert’s horses are always “dead-fit” for the occasion. And don’t forget the ace in the hole. Jockey John Velazquez won his fourth Kentucky Derby and second straight, having ridden Authentic in last September’s running.

“The thing about Johnny,” said Baffert, “those older, seasoned riders, they can figure things out right away.”

John Sadler trains Rock Your World, who beat Medina Spirit by 4 1/4 lengths in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3. Rock Your World was the second choice in Saturday’s betting, 9-2 to favorite Essential Quality at 3-1. Sadler was behind Baffert in the paddock watching the race on the big screen. When the gates opened, Sadler immediately said of his entry, “He didn’t get the break.” Rock Your World finished 17th.

Velazquez got the break. As the jockey did with Authentic, he took Medina Spirit to the lead. And stayed there. All the way around. Even when Brad Cox’s Mandaloun and Essential Quality joined O’Neill’s Hot Rod Charlie to challenge in the stretch, Medina Spirit remained steadfast, winning by a neck.

“Johnny told me he showed him another gear we didn’t know he had,” Baffert said. “That little horse — I keep calling him a little horse, but he’s a good-sized horse — he’s got a huge heart.”

Is it a heart big enough to win the Triple Crown’s second jewel? The Preakness Stakes is May 15. Baffert said the newest Derby champ came out of the race well. Among the trainer’s Baltimore considerations, however, is stablemate Concert Tour. Pulled from Derby probables after a third-pace finish in the Arkansas Derby, the Rebel Stakes winner was pointed toward Pimlico. He worked Sunday morning at Churchill and worked well. Concert Tour and Medina Spirit share similar racing styles.

“I’m not ready to commit to anything right now,” Baffert said Sunday.

After all, after Saturday, better to just bask in being Bob Baffert, the luckiest guy on the face of the earth on the one weekend where everyone who is anyone in Thoroughbred racing dreams of being lucky.

“It’s always great when everything works out,” Bob Baffert said.

So how was your Saturday?

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Winning jockey Velazquez completes trip from Kentucky Derby also-ran to Derby legend

Medina Spirit’s ‘Cinderella story’ puts Bob Baffert in a league of his own

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