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Just when you think he doesn’t have a chance, just when you think there are much better horses, Bob Baffert figures out a way to win the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert became the all-time winningest Kentucky Derby trainer when Medina Spirit gave him his seventh victory in the most famous of all horse races. The 3-year-colt went to the front early and stayed there over the course of 1¼ miles to win by half a length.
“Usually, I come in here with these heavy-hitter horses,” Baffert said. “This year, I came in and I enjoyed myself and came in under the radar, thinking maybe he’ll get a piece of it" with a top-three finish. "But [jockey] Johnny [Velazquez] kept telling me if he improves off his last race, he’ll run well.”
When the gates opened, Velazquez immediately took Medina Spirit to the lead. The colt never led the race by more than a length, which was at the half-mile marker. Down the backstretch, Mandaloun started to move closer and exiting the far turn they were almost side by side.
“I kept waiting for all the horses to pass him,” Baffert said. “And all of sudden, I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute.’ … When he got to the eighth pole, I’m thinking, ‘He’s got a shot,’ and we started getting loud.”
Down the stretch there were several horses that had an opportunity to pass Medina Spirit. Hot Rod Charlie was three wide, and favored Essential Quality was tracking four wide. But Medina Spirit wouldn’t relinquish the lead.
“Every time I asked him to give more, he kept fighting on,” Velazquez said. “You couldn’t ask for more of a horse. When you ride a horse like this who is competitive, you can’t ask for anything else.”
Medina Spirit paid $26.20, $12.00 and $7.60. Mandaloun finished second, and Hot Rod Charlie was third. Essential Quality was fourth, followed by O Besos, Midnight Bourbon, Keepmeinmind, Helium, Known Agenda, Highly Motivated, Sainthood, Like The King, Bourbonic, Hidden Stash, Strong, Super Stock, Rock Your World, Dynamic One, and Soup And Sandwich.
The Kentucky Derby was Medina Spirit’s first race outside of Southern California. He has won three times with three second-place finishes in six starts. He is stabled at Santa Anita just miles from Baffert’s La Cañada home and broke his maiden in his first race at Los Alamitos.
Medina Spirit’s journey to winning the Kentucky Derby was not typical for a Baffert winner. He started out as a mere $35,000 purchase and then played backup to two of Baffert’s more accomplished horses. Medina Spirit finished second to Life Is Good in both the Sham Stakes and San Felipe Stakes. But then, Life Is Good got hurt and all attention turned to another Baffert wunderkind, Concert Tour.
But Concert Tour ran a poor third in the Arkansas Derby and the decision was made to skip the Derby and point toward the Preakness Stakes, something that might be reconsidered with Medina Spirit headed to Baltimore with Triple Crown hopes.
So, Medina Spirit became Baffert’s Kentucky Derby horse almost by default.
Earlier in the week, Baffert was talking about which of his horses were the best ones to win the Kentucky Derby and those that beat better horses.
“Medina Spirit isn’t the best horse in the race,” he said candidly, a position he might have to reevaluate.
The list of Baffert's Derby winners, breaking a tie with trainer Ben Jones, starts with Silver Charm (1997) and then Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015), Justify (2018) and Authentic in last year’s September Derby. American Pharoah and Justify each won the Triple Crown. Medina Spirit was not the longest shot to win for Baffert as War Emblem paid $43.00 to win.
“It was thrilling what that horse did today,” Baffert said “He reminds me so much of Silver Charm, just the fire [in him].”
While the Derby win was certainly the highlight of Baffert’s day, it wasn’t the only bright spot. Earlier, he picked up a record 220th Grade 1 stakes victory by winning the $500,000 Derby City Distaff with Gamine by 1½ lengths. He also won the Grade 2 $500,000 American Turf with Du Jour, a horse that is co-owned by his wife, Jill.
The second favorite in the Derby, the John Sadler-trained Rock Your World, was pretty much eliminated at the start when he bumped with Essential Quality.
“It was pretty much over after the break,” said Joel Rosario, Rock Your World’s jockey. "We got out of position from there, and it was a tough trip to overcome in a race like the Derby.”
Medina Spirit found no such trouble and never had to see the wrong end of another horse.
“It’s a Cinderella story,” Baffert said. “… I can’t believe he won this race. It was all him. That little horse, it was all guts.”
Now, Medina Spirit and any of the other 18 horses that ran in Saturday’s race that go on to the Preakness will have to do something rarely asked of horses nowadays: come back on just two weeks' rest and run again against high-level competition.
That’s why winning the Triple Crown is so difficult.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.